Man working at restaurant

Combatting Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

By Douglas Lipsky

Restaurants are essential to New York City’s vibrant culture. Tourists and locals alike flock to a multitude of dining establishments, enjoying the food, ambiance, and friendly service. However, an alarming issue persists behind the scenes: sexual harassment. Many restaurant employees, from servers to kitchen staff, endure inappropriate behavior regularly. That’s the bad news. The good news is that restaurant workers have legal remedies under various anti-discrimination laws. Let’s explore sexual harassment in the restaurant industry and how to combat it. 

Why Is Sexual Harassment Common in the Restaurant Industry?

Sexual harassment is dishearteningly prevalent in the restaurant industry. Several factors contribute to this:

  • Power dynamics – The hierarchical nature of restaurants often places young or less experienced staff, like servers and bartenders, under managers and senior staff. This can create opportunities for abuse of power. For instance, a manager may make sexual demands of a server in exchange for preferential shifts.
  • Reliance on tips – Servers who depend on tips for their income often endure inappropriate behavior by patrons, fearing that objecting may affect their earnings. A customer’s offhanded comment about a server’s appearance or touching without consent are instances of harassment they often overlook to maintain income.
  • Close working quarters – The tight spaces in many kitchens and dining areas can lead to inadvertent or intentional physical contact. Some individuals exploit these circumstances to make unwanted advances or remarks.

Sexual Harassment is Illegal

Regardless of the environment or reasons, sexual harassment is illegal under federal, state, and city laws. At the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating based on sex, which includes sexual harassment. The law covers employers with 15 or more employees.

In addition, the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) offers broader protection, covering employers with four or more employees. It explicitly defines and prohibits sexual harassment. Importantly, the New York State lowered its standard for proving sexual harassment in 2019. Previously, the state followed the federal standard of proof of ‘severe or pervasive’ harassment. 

Under the amended NYSHRL, harassment is an unlawful discriminatory practice regardless of whether such harassment would be considered severe or pervasive. Moreover, employers are limited in their defense against such claims to what a reasonable victim of discrimination would consider petty slights or trivial inconveniences.

Finally, the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) provides even stronger protection against sexual harassment, holding employers with four or more employees accountable. Under this law, the standard is whether the employee was treated less well than others because of their gender.

Steps Restaurant Workers Should Take After Being Harassed

If you experience sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, take the following steps:

  • Document everything – Write down dates, times, locations, involved parties, witnesses, and specifics of the harassment. This will be crucial evidence.
  • Report to management – Always report incidents to your immediate supervisor or higher authority. While it may feel intimidating, it’s a crucial step in stopping the harassment. 
  • Follow company procedure: Check your company’s policies or employee handbook’s procedures for reporting harassment. Make sure you follow the designated steps.

If the harassment continues or if there’s retaliation, talk to an employment lawyer. 

The Takeaway

While the restaurant industry offers many opportunities, servers and other workers frequently experience harassment. If this has happened to you, an experienced New York City sexual harassment lawyer can explain your rights, determine whether your claim is viable, and help you obtain just compensation.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.