By Haley Frederick
Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer
The restaurant industry has a problem. Whether you’ve worked at a diner, a bar, a fast-food chain or an upscale eatery, the odds are pretty high that you witnessed or experienced an instance of sexual harassment in your workplace.
According to data gathered from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, between 1995 and 2016, more than 170,000 claims of sexual harassment were filed by employees (83 percent were women) in restaurants and bars—more than any other industry.
A 2014 report from Restaurant Opportunities Center United found that 70 percent of men and 90 percent of women working in the restaurant industry experienced some form of sexual harassment.
And while these numbers are colossal, they can’t tell the full story. Surely, many issues are resolved internally or never reported to management, let alone to outside institutions. But, the numbers do indicate that a culture exists across the food-service industry.
“We’ve known that sexual harassment is a problem in many workplaces and there are often some increased vulnerabilities in the service industry,” Julie Evans, director of prevention at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR) said.
Nicole Battle, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG) said some of these vulnerabilities are things like the frequent hiring of new employees, the wide range of ages in workers and the feeling of not having a place to go with concerns and complaints.
“That’s been an ongoing problem in the industry for so long, that people don’t feel comfortable talking to their managers about this because there is no human resources department,” Battle said.
That’s why PAAR and the Pittsburgh chapter of the USBG are teaming up for a new program, Project Last Call.
PAAR had been trying to conceptualize a training program to take into restaurants and bars that could help to start a dialogue around sexual harassment in the workplace and create preventative practices. Cory Hart, a wine sales consultant who volunteers with PAAR, brought them to a USBG Pittsburgh meeting last year.
“PAAR has the resources and the knowledge, and they’re just really good people,” Hart said.
PAAR has the resources, but they needed access to the industry.
“They talked to the entire chapter about what they were trying to accomplish and we decided that it would be better for them to partner up with the USBG so that they could send familiar faces into bars and restaurants to try to get this training accomplished,” Battle said.
PAAR also talked to the USBG about what would be realistic to accomplish in restaurants and bars, where there isn’t usually time or money for days spent on lengthy trainings.
“They really wanted to tailor it to the needs of what the industry could handle and so [the solution was] shortening the trainings and breaking them up into three different sit-downs, all 20 minutes long, so that they weren’t interrupting the flow of setting up for the service that night,” Battle said.
The initial trainings are given to key staff like managers and supervisors, who can then take what they’ve learned and lead discussions and bystander intervention training with their colleagues and employees. They plan to stay flexible and take it on a case-by-case basis, so that as many restaurants and bars can participate as possible.
The Project Last Call kick-off event took place on Jan. 28. Evans said that there’s a lot of interest in the program, but it’s up to each restaurant and bar to reach out to PAAR to get started.
“I think there’s still a need though to greatly spread the word so that more people know that this is out there, and certainly it would depend upon if [businesses] are interested in making sure they have a safe environment for their employees,” Evans said.
Battle thinks there is hesitation for some businesses to attach their name to a subject they feel is taboo. They might think that participating in the program would be admitting some kind of fault. But it isn’t about that at all.
“We’re not placing blame on anyone and we’re not trying to say that what’s happening in your restaurant is unacceptable,” Battle said. “We just want the people that work in these restaurants to have the tools they need to handle this kind of behavior properly.”
By participating in Project Last Call, managers and owners can let their employees know that if they were to have a problem, it would be taken seriously. It can also help people identify what sexual harassment really is—from telling inappropriate stories, to commenting on colleagues’ appearances—so that they can be sure they aren’t crossing the line.
At first, the businesses that are proactive about participating will probably be those that already have a relatively good culture and no tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace. But the more people that participate, the more normal trainings to prevent harassment in the industry will become, and hopefully they can change the culture.
“The more people we get involved with it, the better,” Hart said. “It lets people know that we take these problems seriously and we’re willing to take the steps to address them and move forward to a mutual respect and culture that benefits everybody.”
To find out more about Project Last Call, email PLC@paar.net.