As #MeToo takes down alleged sexual harassers at the top levels of power, chain restaurants face fresh scrutiny

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  • 79% of women and 71% of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment from co-workers while working in the service industry, according to one study.
  • Between 2005 and 2015, 14% of workplace sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were in the hotel and service industry.
  • There are three times as many reported incidences of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry than there are among manufacturing and healthcare employees.
  • At one IHOP in Arizona, a woman claims she was sexually harassed and bullied by her colleagues. The restaurant and its parent franchise, Romulus Restaurants, denies her allegations.

Alice says it started with a proposition: Her co-worker asked her on a date.

When she declined, he began asking for kisses on a daily basis. Alice, then a server at an IHOP in Arizona, says she told her co-worker to stop. But his behavior persisted – so frequently, she says, that she had to cover herself with her hands whenever he walked by.

According to Alice, the co-worker routinely asked her to engage in a sexual relationship; repeatedly reminded her that he liked “big butts;” groped and slapped her waist, hips and buttocks on a regular basis; and even pushed her into confined areas of the restaurant.

Alice, who was also a crew chief – or shift leader – at the restaurant, grew fearful that she would be ostracized if she complained to management. On top of the male co-worker’s behavior, Alice says, other colleagues began spreading damaging rumors about her private life.

When she approached her district manager about the harassment and bullying, in November 2017, she advised Alice to “not give [the staff] a reason to talk to her” and sent her home without pay.

Humiliated, Alice quit. “I was so fed up with them that I walked away and washed my hands of them,” she told INSIDER.

Alice sued her employer, the largest IHOP franchisee in the US, for sex discrimination

Alice’s allegations appeared in a lawsuit she filed in December 2018 against Romulus Restaurant Group, which refers to itself as “the largest franchisee and developer of IHOP restaurants” and operates in 11 states.

The complaint details what Alice says is a pattern of behavior among her colleagues and bosses that violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. That section of the 1964 law forbids sex-based discrimination in the workplace.

The male co-worker’s physical advances were frequently coupled with sexually charged comments, the complaint says, including “Let me show you a good time,” and “You know you want it.”

The same co-worker would “utilize each opportunity he was near her to brush up against or bump into her body in a sensual manner,” the filing claims.

Romulus denied Alice’s allegations and claimed she was responsible for reporting workplace misconduct

In an response filed in federal court, Romulus Restaurant Group, which owns the IHOP where Alice worked, denied she was discriminated against or harassed in the workplace.

The company said Alice did not in fact report any allegations of harassment, and if they had occurred, “It would have been [Alice’s] responsibility to report them and, as a Crew Chief, she knew that she should have participated in communications to remedy alleged inappropriate comments and conduct by subordinate employees on the crews for which she was the Crew Chief or coworkers.”

A spokesman for Romulus said he could not discuss the specifics of the case because it was still ongoing. In a statement, he said the IHOP franchisee “has a comprehensive policy to prevent discrimination or harassment in our restaurants. Supervisors and employees are trained on the subject, and management is accessible to employees to address promptly and resolve any incidents that arise.”

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IHOP, which is not a defendant in the case, declined to directly address the litigation, but said in a statement that “harassment of any kind has no place in an organization.”

“It’s important to note,” the statement continued, “that IHOP is 100% franchised and all of our restaurants are independently owned and operated by entrepreneurs dedicated to serving their communities.”

The full names of individuals mentioned in Alice’s complaint were not disclosed, and therefore INSIDER was unable to contact them for comment.

IHOP franchisees have in the past paid upwards of a million to employees alleging sexual harassment

This isn’t the first time an IHOP franchisee has faced a sexual harassment complaint.

In July 2018, two southern Illinois IHOP franchises agreed to pay nearly a million dollars to 12 employees who claimed they had been harassed by coworkers and managers as part of a settlement, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said in a statement at the time.

The alleged harassment included offensive sexual comments, groping, physical threats, and, in one instance, attempted forced oral sex with a management employee. Some of the female employees were teenagers at the time of the alleged harassment.

According to an investigation by Vox, more than 60 workers at IHOPs and Applebee’s restaurants across eight states filed sexual harassment lawsuits in federal court between 2010 and February 2018.

The two restaurant chains, which are both owned by Dine Brands Global Inc., each saw four sexual harassment lawsuits filed against its independent franchisees – the highest number, Vox notes, of any restaurant chain in those eight years. IHOP saw another two filed against its franchisees later in 2018.

As of February 2019, four federal lawsuits were pending against IHOP franchisees in Arizona, and Tennessee. IHOP franchisee lawsuits in Illinois and New Mexico were settled out of court, and a case in Nevada was recently moved into arbitration. Vox reports that a case against an Alabama IHOP was also moved into arbitration.

A lawsuit against Applebee’s in New York moved to arbitration in July 2018. Cases in South Carolina, North Dakota, and another in New York were settled out of court. One in Florida was also settled.

Dine Brands Global spokesperson Thien Ho said in a statement to INSIDER that it “does not tolerate harassment of any kind” and “each franchisee establishes and adheres to their own strict policies against harassment in the workplace and we expect them to follow all local and federal laws.”

There’s more sexual harassment reported in the service industry than any other

Sexual harassment continues to afflict the service industry more than any other private sector. According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), there are three times as many reported incidences of sexual harassment among hotel and restaurant workers than there are among manufacturing and healthcare industry employees.

According to the CAP, lawsuits involving lodging and food services accounted for 5,500 workplace sexual harassment complaints filed with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) between 2005 and 2015, or 14 percent of the total sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC.

And those are just reported complaints. A 2014 study from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) Forward Together revealed that 79% of women and 71% of men who were surveyed said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment from co-workers while working in the service industry. Two-thirds of women and half of men dealt with sexual harassment from owners, managers, and supervisors, according to the same survey.

The #MeToo movement has shown that employees of high-end establishments routinely encounter harassment. Well-known chefs and restaurateurs, including Mario Batali, Kevin Friedman, and John Besh, have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct.

The working conditions of smaller and less prominent establishments have received comparatively little attention, even as they and their employees far outnumber their higher-end counterparts. And that makes it difficult to accurately gauge the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse in the restaurant industry.

‘When a supervisor can decide whether or not you’re going to get a shift … of course you’re going to put up with it’

One reason sexual harassment is so prevalent in the restaurant industry is because of the power supervisors have over their low-waged workers. By definition, supervisors decide who works when, how many shifts an employee has, which section of tables a server has, and who works with whom, said Sharyn Tejani the director of Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which helps low-wage workers find attorneys and funds cases involving sexual harassment in the workplace.

“When a supervisor can decide whether or not you’re going to get a shift – which is going to be the money you need to pay for your groceries or rent – of course you’re going to put up with it because what else are you going to do?” she said.

Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said changing the sexual harassment culture in the service industry could change people’s views on it elsewhere.

“For young people who are entering into the workforce where they feel sexual harassment is normalized and not taken seriously, what does that set them up for beyond that and wherever they go in their employment?” Palumbo told INSIDER.

She advocates that sexual harassment training needs to be offered at all levels of service industry employees, in order to ensure employees’ know their rights.

Palumbo said restaurants should ensure people understand sexual harassment policies and know how to make a complaint. She also suggested having an alternate route of reporting harassment for people whose supervisors are doing the harassing.

“There are these really integral industries like restaurants that are part of our daily lives as workers and customers,” Palumbo said. “If we can start to transform the dynamic in even one restaurant, it influences the community the restaurant is in, and influences the broader community.”

Alice’s attorney, Stephen Mitchell, believes meaningful changes need to start at the top. “The franchise restaurant industry only cares about their financial bottom line,” he told INSIDER. “The only way to get them to take sexual harassment in the workplace seriously is to impact that bottom line. Additionally, in the more egregious cases you will find it often stems from corporate culture always from the top down.”

As for Alice, she hopes to see others speak out. “You can’t hold it in for too long,” she said, “or it will break you.”