Restaurant sexual harassment hits close to home for NH workers

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

While having dinner at Crown Tavern this week, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman hosting a wine tasting at the bar. I shared with him how I used to work at a local restaurant known for their amazing wine selection, and how much I loved learning about different types of wine from the experts. He asked why I didn’t work there anymore, and I told him how I quit because a creepy manager made me feel uncomfortable. “Oh I know exactly who you’re talking about,” the wine rep told me. “He was fired for sexually harassing female employees after you left, and he’s been fired from two more restaurants for the same thing since.”

In that moment, I felt validated. I had always felt uneasy around this middle-aged man, who would often compliment my looks at work, or text me off the clock to invite me out for drinks. I was in grad school at the time and needed the job to support myself, so I stuck it out for as long as I could, but eventually decided to leave when his advances persisted. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first or last experience I had with inappropriate managers during my time in the restaurant industry. Over the course of the eight years that I worked as a server and bartender, I dealt with my fair share of uncomfortable touching, comments, and advances from managers, servers, bartenders, cooks, and patrons.

I’m not alone in my experience. A study polling service industry employees finds that 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Additionally, restaurant employees file more sexual harassment claims than employees of any other industry. The unique nature of serving and bartending jobs results in a disproportionate amount of sexual harassment from both customers and superiors. While the #MeToo Movement has shed light on the abusive nature of celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and John Besh, there are still millions of restaurant employees across the world who experience harassment every day and don’t have the means to speak up for themselves, due to fear of losing their job or retaliation by their perpetrator. Additionally, the restaurant industry provides job opportunities to many groups that are also more vulnerable to sexual victimization, such as women, undocumented immigrants, low-income individuals, and young people just starting out in the workforce.

Batali, left, and Besh.

In recent days, allegations of sexual harassment at a New Hampshire restaurant have caused a firestorm on social media. The public has displayed their outrage over an employment contract created by the management of STREET, a popular tapas restaurant in Portsmouth, NH. The contract, which was written specifically for a young female server, lists several rules for her to follow – on and off the clock – regarding her romantic relationships, after a breakup between the woman and a cook at the restaurant. The 11 items in the contract include rules for the young woman to abide by, such as, “You may not bring boyfriends to STREET. That includes any boy or man who may be interpreted as a romantic interest even if they are not,” and “You will limit your off/hours socializing at STREET, two drinks at most, and in the company of women or males who are not in any way shape or form romantic.”


The young woman at the center of the scandal took to Facebook to share the contract and her side of the story, explaining “I was being harassed, both personally and sexually, by some of my coworkers for the past 8 months… I took the initiative to approach management because I felt unsafe at work and the retaliation against me was utterly unprofessional and sexist.” She says she is speaking out because she wants to “hold this establishment accountable for their actions,” and that she is “not the only one who has to deal with harassment from management/coworkers” at the restaurant. The contract has been shared on Facebook more than eight hundred times, with comments such as, “won’t be visiting this place ever in my ventures south. I hope you get justice of some sort for this,” and “wow … the management openly supporting a toxic work environment and supporting the harassers. The whole contract is disgusting and just victim shames you for exposing the harassers.”

STREET’s owner responded to criticism on social media by posting her own statement (which has since been removed), arguing that the contract was warranted due to the server’s “sexual shenanigans.” STREET also addressed the incident in an official statement on their Facebook page which defends the contract due to an “employment issue” where two parties acted “inappropriately” after their relationship ended. The post also described owner Michelle Lozuaway as a “a committed feminist and advocate for women her entire adult life.”

“Some feminist you are,” a Facebook user wrote, before the post was taken down early Saturday July 29. STREET has also removed their restaurant reviews from their Facebook page, after hundreds of people filled their feed with 1-star reviews and angry comments about the contract. There is a Go Fund Me page set up to help the young woman pay for legal fees to pursue a sexual harassment case. The page has already raised nearly $2,500.

Via reddit: My cousin takes this pervert down for grabbing her ass. He is later arrested in front of his wife and 2 kids when the cops arrived. from r/JusticeServed

Sadly, sexual harassment in the restaurant industry is far too often normalized and accepted. A video of a waitress in Georgia has gone viral because of her surprising reaction to the man who groped her. In the video, the young woman is focused on taking a food order as a male patron walks by and grabs her rear-end without invitation. The young woman reacts instinctively, grabbing the man and throwing him to the ground. Her name is Emelia Holden, and she later told reporters that she didn’t think, but just reacted when it happened. “I was like, ‘nope, that’s not going to happen’ and turned around and took the guy down,” she said in an interview. The perpetrator was charged with sexual battery.

I had a similar instinctive reaction to Emelia when my rear-end was grabbed by a fellow server at a restaurant I worked at after college. I slapped him and yelled in his face, but didn’t have the strength to push this much larger man to the ground like Emelia did. Instead, I was able to have this person fired, because the situation was caught on video camera. While being touched inappropriately seems to be a common experience for many women in the restaurant industry, there is not always a camera to capture the moment on video. If a restaurant employee does report sexual abuse or harassment, often managers do not take the allegations seriously or dismiss them for lack of proof. Just because these situations aren’t often handled correctly, doesn’t mean that they are not criminal sexual offenses.

Nearly 50 percent of all adults have worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives. Statistically, that means there are millions and millions of people in the United States alone who have endured uncomfortable sexual experiences in the workplace. Research shows that sexual harassment and assault can cause negative mental and physical health effects, missed time from work, substance abuse disorders, and many other problems. From a public health perspective, there is a need to change the culture of restaurants to protect nearly half of the adult population who have worked or currently work in the restaurant industry.

What can we do to solve this pervasive problem in our culture?

First, education on healthy relationships and sexual boundaries needs to begin early in the lifespan. In my position as a researcher at Prevention Innovations Research Center, I have found that prevention programs work most effectively to shift community norms when they are implemented in elementary, middle school, high school, and college. As my colleague, Dr. Sharyn Potter has said to me before, “Tom Brady didn’t learn how to be an all-star quarterback during his freshman year at University of Michigan; he had been playing since he could walk.” In the same vein, prevention of sexual violence should begin early, to educate individuals on healthy, respectful interpersonal relationships and boundaries.

There are also many things that can be done in the workplace to help service industry employees feel comfortable speaking out when sexual harassment and assault occurs. The majority of restaurant owners, managers, and chefs are male, and the majority of servers and bartenders are female. This supervision structure creates a power dynamic that silences many lower-tier employees, the majority of whom are women, from speaking up about harassment and assault for fear of losing shifts, or their job altogether. Additionally, the concept that the “customer is always right” causes management to trust the guest’s word over the employees, even when a customer acts inappropriately.

These problems could be solved by removing tipping as a practice in the restaurant industry. Today, the average hourly wage for servers and bartenders in New Hampshire is $3.27, which is $4 less than minimum wage. These employees have to make the rest of their salary in tips, and must rely on the customers to give them a decent sum at the end of a visit. If there was a guaranteed living wage for restaurant workers, it could help these individuals stand up for themselves against inappropriate behavior, because they would no longer need to rely on the money of a guest who may be harassing them.

Small structural changes can make a big difference too. Without video cameras in Emelia’s situation or my own, there might not have been consequences for the perpetrator. Adding security cameras to all areas of restaurants can help provide evidence if an incident occurs, and employees should not be required to work alone late at night or enter areas of the building that make them feel unsafe. All employees should also be required to sign a sexual misconduct policy before they begin working, to verify that everyone in the restaurant understands that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated.

What Emelia did to her perpetrator is brave, but could also be dangerous for many. Instead of praising women for fighting back against sexual predators, our society needs to shift the onus to the men who are perpetrating these crimes, so we can prevent future acts of sexual assault and harassment. For myself and the millions of others who have worked in the service industry, sexual harassment is a real threat with serious consequences. In the #MeToo era, women are gaining the ability to speak up about the violence and harassment they have endured. The restaurant industry has far to go, but a public awareness is the first step in changing the culture.

Rebecca Howard is a Manchester native who enjoys reading, running, cooking, and spending time with her cats, Simon and Stella. She is a research project manager at Prevention Innovations Research Center at UNH who is passionate about social justice and ending violence in our communities.

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