A recently published deep-dive into the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) revealed that IHOP and Applebee’s received over 60 sexual harassment complaints across eight states since 2010. The report from Vox details how the most vulnerable workers — often minors and women — can be easily targeted and ignored in the vast chain infrastructure.
In a previous piece, I discussed the rampant sexual harassment problem in the restaurant industry on the whole. More than anything, I broached a complex and nuanced topic, one that has just begun to enter our social consciousness, and one restaurant professionals are increasingly (and justifiably) pressured to address.
The EEOC receives the most sexual harassment complaints from this sector. It is dangerous to establish a hierarchy for sexual trauma, as in abuse here is worse or better than abuse there. But it is impossible to understand sexual harassment — and to prevent it — without seeing how it functions in different restaurant environments. One such environment is large corporations; While their restaurants may be individually-owned, their employees face structural impediments such as mandatory arbitration agreements (MAA) and an institutionalized sense their experiences are insignificant compared to the bottom line.
The instances described in the aforementioned court documents are varied and disturbing, but a series of quotes from an accused IHOP manager, Rami Ramadan, demonstrate the consistent volatility and power asserted in these unwanted sexual advances:
“‘Don’t make me get violent babe, and take what I want,” he texted her, according to court documents. ‘Or we can meet and have sex somewhere that would be fun’; ‘I wasn’t asking, I was telling your [sic]’; and ‘Your [sic] going to cooperate one way or the other.’”
The text messages culminated in a physically violent attack, wherein Ramadan threatened the teenage girl with a knife before he “released her.”
These reports provide a unique view into the climate of large chain restaurants as many institutions continue to use mandatory arbitrary agreements, which require employees to arbitrate complaints within the company rather than go to court.
In the 1990s, a female bartender won a case against Hooters, claiming she had never received proper documentation or explanation on the MAA she signed, and was left optionless after facing sexual harassment at the restaurant. But this decision does not prevent restaurants from forcing prospective employees to sign them, and the definition of what constitutes a thorough “explanation” of said agreement remains legally murky.
This is also not the first time Applebee’s (or its parent company, Doherty Enterprises) has faced a mandatory arbitrary agreement lawsuit. In 2014, the EEOC filed against the company, claiming their policy prevented employees from discussing any sort of discrimination with the federal government or otherwise.
Ultimately, most young workers — for whom this may be their first job or integral source of income — don’t know what a mandatory arbitrary agreement is; It will just be another paper to sign until the worst happens. Moreover, because of such policy we do not entirely know the scope or severity of sexual harassment in these omnipresent restaurant institutions, nor can we defend the rights of those wronged.
As we continue to find answers, I wonder how restaurant owners everywhere can continue to make their businesses a safe and welcoming place for staff, and to not forget the most vulnerable in this fight.