More sexual harassment claims are filed in the restaurant industry than any other, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. A study conducted by the non-profit, One Fair Wage, found 41% of service workers reported they were harassed more during the pandemic than at any other time.
Offering actionable solutions, Les Dames d’Escoffier New York (LDNY) recently united hospitality leaders and advocates to present helpful information and resources through a free live webinar “Breaking the Silence: Confronting Harassment in the Hospitality Industry”, sponsored by the Institute of Culinary Education. Melanie Young, founder/host of The Connected Table Live Radio and LDNY member, assembled a panel of six industry experts and moderated a fearless, in-depth discussion. A list of resources can also be found on www.ldny.org.
Women comprise 70% of the U.S. hospitality workforce and as many as 90% of female restaurant employees report some form of sexual harassment. “Our organization is against the normalization of such unconscionable behavior and we are determined to offer supportive solutions,” said LDNY Co-President Jen O’Flanagan of FeastPR. Her LDNY Co-President Jenifer Lang, the former Managing Director of Café des Artistes, added “Harassment is insidious and needs to be attacked from every angle. Our goal is to empower the victims to defend themselves: legally, physically, and professionally.”
This summit of female hospitality leaders identified several key steps to address this pervasive problem:
Legalize Fair Wages
Research by One Fair Wage, a national coalition, campaign and organization focused on the service sector, found the restaurant industry to be one of the largest and fastest growing industries, yet it has the absolute lowest wages of any industry in the United States, with 43 states paying only $2.13 an hour. “Female workers are overwhelmingly dependent on the whims and biases of customers and whether customers are pleased with their service,” stated Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage. “’Pleased with their service’ has translated to physical and behavioral biases, core issues that enable sexual harassment. This became even clearer and more blatant during the pandemic.”
Conversely, according to Jayaraman, the seven states that honor a full minimum wage in the hospitality sector (California Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana, and Alaska) have one half the rate of sexual harassment claims and better business with higher restaurant industry sales, higher job growth, and higher rates of tipping. “We have accepted and normalized the sexual harassment in this industry, which cannot continue. We need everybody to help push for elimination of the subminimum wage,” said Jayaraman.
Create Transparent, Supportive Culture
Theodora Lee, shareholder of Littler Mendelson P.C. and owner of Theopolis Vineyards, advocated for every employee within the workplace to be made familiar with agencies such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and their local branch of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), where they can file a sexual harassment complaint without the need to hire a lawyer. “Because of long tradition, employees don’t know they can take action. There are laws on the books,” says Lee.
Only 10% of sexual harassment is reported, which “exposes this overall resistance that people have, this fear that prevents them from reporting,” said Taryn Abrahams, MFT, SHRM-CP Founder/CEO, Empower Behavioral Services, LLC. She encouraged companies to create a transparent culture with clear decision-making and bold communications that includes scripts and training to intervene, if they choose to.
Ashley Oberdorff, PHR, Director, Empowered Hospitality, emphasized the importance of all restaurants—large corporations or “mom-and-pop”—having a human resources department, either in house or outsourced. She also explained how critical it is to ensure that policies are up to date and to address sexual harassment in employee handbooks, with an acknowledgement form for employees. “It’s so important to act and not put it off,” recommends Oberdorff. “Make sure everything is documented. Find out the facts and go from there.”
Better Workplace Training
“There is a real need to create better, more effective training around this topic. The missing piece is the importance of arming people with the skills to be able to intervene if they choose to,” said Abrahams.
“In hospitality, people by nature have great relational skills, can read someone’s face or body language and tell whether or not someone is happy with their meal. We build on those same skills to give people the skills and practice they need to be more comfortable intervening [in harassment],” said Lauren R. Taylor, director, Safe Bars and Defend Yourself. The Safe Bar program recently formalized training for people who work in bars and restaurants to quickly identify sexual harassment and safely prevent it through strategies like bystander intervention.
Effective bystander invention training includes different tools to address sexual harassment based on an individual’s comfort level. “It creates awareness and a sense of collective responsibility, because the reality is that most victims don’t speak up. It also gives victims a sense of empowerment,” said Abrahams.
Step Up as a Mentor
“To me, from walking away from that title [Court of Master Sommelier], I can speak for those who can’t speak. You don’t have to take it; let me take it for you so you don’t have to. I couldn’t do that 15 years ago, but I can now,” noted Alpana Singh, sommelier, restaurateur, host of the Emmy-Award winning PBS-TV Show, Check, Please! Professional organizations such as Les Dames d’Escoffier New York and social media groups such as Women in Hospitality are also forums for resource references, support and solidarity. “The moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice–you don’t want to be caught in a situation where you could have done something, and you did nothing.”
“We can’t allow harassment to be swept under the table because women are afraid to speak out for fear it will hurt their careers. Breaking the Silence is an important step to help open up the conversation and provide solutions and best practices to help the hospitality industry maintain best practices and a safe workplace culture, ” concluded Young.
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Les Dames d’Escoffier New York (LDNY) is an unparalleled collective of forward-thinking and successful female leaders in all sectors of the food, beverage and hospitality industries. Located in the most dynamic and competitive city in the world, Les Dames d’Escoffier New York (LDNY) is the founding and largest chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI), an experienced 501c3 non-profit organization. Our mission is to advance and support aspiring professional women in food and beverage, as well as to champion critical industry issues. LDNY’s vision is guided by three objectives: Education, Advocacy and Philanthropy.