Five female kitchen workers are suing McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood & Steaks, alleging an environment of sexual harassment that included touch, groping and lewd behavior.
The five women, who served as dishwashers, cleaners and prep cooks at the McCormick & Schmick’s near Faneuil Hall in Boston, outlined their claims at a press conference Tuesday.
The plaintiffs described lewd comments and gestures, such as supervisor grabbing his crotch and saying “This is your food,” as well as physical threats in walk-in coolers and sexually suggestive comments and actions that created “an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or sexually offensive work environment.”
McCormick & Schmick’s, which is owned by Houston-based Landry’s Inc., in a statement Wednesday said it “strives to maintain a harassment-free environment.”
Julia Liebelt, Landry’s vice president of human resources, said, “When harassment of any type is reported, we take matters seriously and immediately investigate, resulting in swift, appropriate action. This case is no exception. Like most companies, we are not immune from bad characters.”
The five Latina women appeared publicly in order highlight working conditions in the restaurant industry, especially for back-of-house employees, their lawyer said.
“These women were very brave,” said Sophia Hall, an attorney with the Boston-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, which along with Fair Work P.C. filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston.
“Unfortunately, back-of-the-house blue-collar employees aren’t regularly tied to an effective reporting mechanism for any type of labor violations or for discrimination,” Hall said in an interview Wednesday. “This is particularly the experience of immigrant women and women of color, especially when it comes to sexual harassment.”
The complaint was filed on behalf of Milagro Alvarez, Santiago Cruz, Gladys Fuentes, Marta Romero and Fabiana Santos. Alvarez remains employed at the restaurant, Hall said.
The complaint was filed after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined reasonable cause to believe that McCormick & Schmick’s discriminated against the women on the basis of their gender, Hall said.
Landry’s Liebelt said McCormick & Schmick’s investigated the case when it was first reported in 2015 and terminated one employee and took disciplinary actions.
“Although the EEOC and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination both declined to prosecute this matter, the plaintiffs’ lawyers have latched on to the current frenzy concerning sexual harassment and filed a lawsuit citing inflammatory allegations that conflicted with statements of their own clients and that at least one independent eyewitness identified during our investigation said was untrue,” Liebelt said in her statement.
“We are confident that after we were put on notice, we did all we could to restore the workplace to a harassment-free environment and that we will prevail in the litigation,” Liebelt said.
Hall said the five women seek compensation for harm as well as changes across Landry’s restaurants.
“They are all adamant that their experience should be a catalyst for all the women who typically don’t have a forum to speak from,” Hall said. The women are from several Central American countries as well as Brazil and spoke Tuesday through a translator.
“In our clients’ opinion, it’s not sufficient to shed light on just their experiences, but they would like to see systemic mechanisms that would allow for women with similar backgrounds and financial desperation to assure they can speak out when their rights are violated,” Hall said.
Large restaurant chains also should be aware these are not isolated incidents, Hall said.
“Despite the fact that these are the most vulnerable and oftentimes the lowest paid on their staff, they still have legal rights and are willing to use the law to make sure those rights are being met,” Hall said. The plaintiffs have requested jury trial.
Sexual harassment in the restaurant industry has come under increased scrutiny in the past few months with high-profile chefs and restaurant owners facing widespread accusations.
In October, John Besh stepped down as CEO of his New Orleans, La.-based restaurant group after sexual harassment allegations were published in the Times-Picayune.
This week, celebrity chef Mario Batali stepped down from operations at his B&B Hospitality Group and hosting duties at “The Chew” ABC television show after harassment claims from four women.
Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless