Sexual Harassment and Its Prevalence in the Restaurant Industry

What was once a constantly packed, European inspired gastropub, the Spotted Pig[i] is now permanently closed due to explosive allegations of sexual harassment against owner, Ken Friedman and investor, Mario Batali. The Manhattan restaurant announced its permanent closure on January 27th, 2021, only weeks after the commitment from Friedman that he would pay 11 women $240,000 in settlements as well as a share of his profits until 2030. The New York State Attorney General’s office started the investigation for this case two years ago. New York City accommodates some of the most universally acclaimed and conceptual restaurants in the United States. The Spotted Pig was just one example of how anything goes, in terms of uniqueness and design. Closing after 20 years of business, the case of this Lower Manhattan restaurant illustrates the decreasing tolerance for this type of behavior. Friedman was known to have initiated unwanted touching and sexual advances towards employees, creating a work environment that became inherently sexual.

When the woman he had made advances toward decided to speak up in 2019, he threatened to fire them or make sure they were blacklisted in the industry. The same can be said about Batali[ii], who was once half of The Batali and Bastianich Restaurant Group. Batali was forced to give up his shares in the restaurants after several claims of sexual assault were made against him.

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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits any sort of discrimination or harassment on the basis of sex. Therefore, no sexual remarks, inappropriate touching, or termination of employment due to the refusal to engage in these types of behaviors is permitted. But, if you haven’t worked in the restaurant industry, chances are you aren’t familiar with the inner workings of it. Frequent restaurant goers may be surprised to know that sexual harassment has run rampant throughout most, yes most, restaurants for decades. In fact, over 90% of women, nationwide, have reported that they have experienced some form of sexual harassment while working in a restaurant.

Taking a variety of shapes from the uncomfortable innuendos made toward the female staff, to the unwarranted hands on the small of a staff member's back when passing behind them, to a full on sexual advance, harassment still occurs frequently. So, if this is a universal experience among restaurant employees that is supposed to be becoming less tolerated, why does it continue to happen? The unfortunate reality of this type of work is that power is everything.

The clear power structure will sometimes perpetuate an intimidating work environment, especially when whoever is in the managerial position feels the need to project their power on to those who are lower in the hierarchy.[iii] It can be daunting to speak up if you are a woman who is lower in the pecking order and is trying to speak out against your boss, who just happens to be a powerful man. The other aspect of this is that the vast majority of servers, bartenders, bussers, etc. work for tips, rather than an hourly wage, making it vital to work on busy nights or have a decent section of tables. An employee may be hesitant to report any sexual harassment in fear that they may lose their shifts or even their job, causing potential financial hardships. Their livelihood becomes immensely more important than reporting their abuser. The issue of workplace harassment in the restaurant industry[iv], as well as a variety of others, has been a long standing one that is thankfully coming to light because of cases like that of Mario Batali and Ken Friedman. The restaurant industry is on its way to becoming a less tolerant industry for harassment but for now, it still is extremely prevalent. Incidents go unreported every day.

At Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo & Plotkin LLP, we have a team of experienced attorneys who specialize in workplace harassment. If you, or someone you know has been a victim of workplace harassment, we encourage you to call (888) 260-0473 to schedule your free consultation and learn how you can recover financial compensation, as well as receive justice for you or your loved ones.

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