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In the food service industry, sexual harassment is ‘the norm’

  • Veronika Schmitz talks about her experiences with sexual harassment at a previous food service job on Thursday. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Monday, December 11, 2017

Veronika Schmitz has been working in the food service business for over a decade; first in West Virginia, and now in New Hampshire.

For most of her time in the industry, sexual comments, unwanted touching and unwelcome advances have been a constant. One bartender ran a “credit check” on her while she was standing on a ladder, sliding his hand between her legs and up her back. Another co-worker told her he fantasized about turning her straight. Smaller indignities abounded.

“Butt slapping was the norm,” she said.

Schmitz worked her way up into management, and things changed. Along with another manager, she said she was able to foster an environment where expectations were different and sexual harassment wasn’t tolerated.

“When there were two of us who held people accountable for their behavior, then it wasn’t an issue,” she said.

No more sexualizing conversations. No more “butt-slapping.”

“I called it a transcendent feeling – going into work and not having to deal with it,” Schmitz said.

But the reprieve wasn’t permanent. A new general manager came on who liked to tell female employees he could help them put on their uniforms – because he had worked in the pageant industry and was used to seeing women undressed. Things quickly backslid.

Schmitz said over a dozen employees complained to human resources. When a district manager for the national chain finally called a meeting to address the situation, he used the occasion to joke about how sensitive her generation is. In frustration, she quit.

Sexual harassment happens across all industries, attorneys Heather Burns and Lauren Irwin said. But they get the most calls from people in three sectors – car dealerships, factories and restaurants.

Unless they go to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, people must first file all sexual harassment claims with the state’s Human Rights Commission, even if they ultimately go to court. Most cases are settled – or taken to court – and don’t result in a decision by the Commission. But of those that do, a disproportionate number of cases come from restaurants.

The latest sexual harassment case resolved at the Commission, in 2016, concerned a waitress at a Nashua diner, where the owner asked her to stay late after work for the purpose of “sexual favors.” When she refused and complained to his son, she was suspended for two weeks. When she returned from suspension, the harassment continued. She complained again and was fired.

She was ultimately awarded $8,000 in lost wages and $15,000 in damages. The owner of the diner paid the state an administrative fine of $10,000.

For many women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace, getting justice through the human rights commission or the courts is a time consuming process, with no guarantee of a payoff.

As social media is filled with #MeToo stories of sexual harassment and assault, Amanda Grady Sexton, the public affairs director at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said some in the field are now calling it the #WeFew movement.

“We’re talking about Hollywood actresses and people with a lot of political clout,” she said.

Samantha Webb is paying off her student loans by bartending at a chain restaurant in Concord. For the 24-year-old, sexual harassment is an all-pervasive, ubiquitous part of the job.

“It’s everybody that you work with. It’s the back-of-the-house line cooks. It’s your managers. It’s other servers and bartenders,” she said.

The University of New Hampshire graduate minored in women’s studies and was active with the school’s sexual harassment and rape prevention program. When she first arrived in a workplace where people constantly joked about who they wanted to sleep with and slapped each other on the butt, she tried to stick up for herself. It didn’t go well.

“My co-worker was like ‘you get offended by everything. You’re too sensitive.’ And that sort of became more of a problem than it was for me to just let it slide,” she said.

The harassment is typically “mostly just verbal,” with some butt-slapping, even by managers, she said. But one co-worker’s behavior was far more disturbing.

“He’ll get really, really creepy. Like, threaten to kill somebody, or like, rape them – which is huge,” she said.

His behavior is dismissed the same way more minor transgressions are – as “just a joke.” He’s still working there – and still telling women he works with the same things.

“If you bring it up to anybody in the restaurant they’re just like, whatever – he’s just being him. Which is my favorite line in the book. ‘Boys will be boys’,” she said.

Schmitz is still working in the food industry, now a manager at another chain restaurant. The human resources department where she works takes complaints seriously, she said, and the atmosphere is much better.

And that, she said, is what upsets her the most. Her experience has taught her that sexual harassment doesn’t have to be the norm.

Change is possible – even fairly easy – if people in charge decide to make it a priority.

“It’s in control of the managers,” she said. “But everyone has to be on board. If you have one manager or someone that’s okay with it, then it crumbles.”

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)