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Kitchen workers accuse supervisors of misconduct

Low-wage Latina employees describe sexual harassment and toxic workplace

Karen Morales
Kitchen workers accuse supervisors of misconduct
McCormick & Schmick’s Faneuil Hall location

Five Latina restaurant workers filed a sexual harassment lawsuit last week against McCormick & Schmick’s, a national restaurant chain, alleging an abusive work environment at the restaurant’s Faneuil Hall location.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that there was reasonable cause to believe that McCormick & Schmick’s discriminated against the women on the basis of their sex and the complaint was filed in Suffolk Superior Court by Boston law firm Fair Work P.C. and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.

“Our clients worked in precarious, low-wage positions such as dishwashers, cleaners and prep cooks,” said Sophia Hall, one of the attorneys of the Lawyers’ Committee. “All they wanted was to support themselves and their families, yet they were subjected to a toxic workplace filled with lewd behavior, sexually inappropriate comments and unwanted touching.”

The plaintiffs include Marta Romero of Chelsea, employed as a dishwasher from 2011 to 2015; Fabiana Santos of Revere, employed as a prep cook from 2002 to 2015; Gladys Fuentes of East Boston, who was a prep cook from 2015 to 2017; Santiago Cruz of Somerville, who worked as a janitor, dishwasher and prep cook from 2004 to 2017; and Milago Alvarez of Revere, who has been a dishwasher for the restaurant from 2011 to the present.

The male workers accused in the sexual harassment suit are sous chef Roman Buruca, executive chef Aaron Hopp, and dishwasher Jesus Vasquez Lopez.

“The harassment that I endured made me feel humiliated. When I get home, all I can do is think about what has happened. I cry a lot. I cannot sleep at night,” said Fuentes, in a press release.

“I feel like I am being treated like a prostitute, when I am a mother and I deserve respect,” said Cruz.

In a phone conversation with the Banner, Hall said that although cases of women coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment have been prevalent recently in Hollywood and the political arena, there are few low-wage workers, immigrants and women of color who do the same.

“It’s missing this crucial piece of the conversation, because people hopefully recognize that it’s hard to come forward, but that difficulty grows when you’re monolingual, the primary breadwinner and there is so much anti-immigrant rhetoric in the country,” said Hall. “All these factors are true for our clients and they are not necessarily part of the mainstream conversation.”

The complaint alleges the incidents of sexual harassment were brought to the attention of the restaurant’s former general manager, Barry Young, who failed to take action. The restaurant chain’s human resource department conducted its own investigation, but denied any sexual harassment on the basis that one of the perpetrators was significantly younger than some of the plaintiffs.

HR investigation

Hall told the Banner that this reasoning was flawed.

“It comes from the widespread misunderstanding of what sexual harassment is and how it works. It’s not about physical attraction, it has everything to do with power,” she said. “It’s like they’re saying it’s impossible for women of older age to be sexually harassed by younger men.”

Julia Liebelt, vice president of human resources for McCormick & Shmick’s, said in a 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.”

All five women witnessed harassment and inappropriate misconduct being committed toward one another and corroborated each other’s stories, including instances where they were groped, propositioned and subjected to lewd comments.

According to the complaint, on or around June 6, 2015, Santos was standing next to a table when “Vasquez came up behind her and pushed her into the table with his groin. She screamed, yelling words to the effect of ‘Don’t touch me.’”

In another incident, Fuentes was in the walk-in refrigerator when “Chef Hopp came up behind her and put his arms around her. He put his tongue in her ear.”

On July 2, 2015 the women met with the new McCormick & Schmick’s general manager, David Wilson, to report their experiences, and the HR department began its investigation.

The department issued Hopp only a disciplinary action report, concluding that his intent to offend the employees in a sexual manner was unlikely because he was 25 years younger than the plaintiffs.

The restaurant suspended Buruca for a week without pay, because they found he was involved in an incident of “horseplay” and they terminated Vasquez in July 2015 because of his lack of credibility and unprofessional demeanor during questioning.

The HR department still refused to acknowledge any sexual harassment in the workplace.

“It sends the message, not to just our clients, but to workers in general, that for people in positions of power, their word will always count for more than lower wage workers,” said Hall.

On July 21, 2015 the plaintiffs filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination and the EEOC. On May 23, 2017, following its own investigation, the EEOC found reasonable cause of discrimination on the basis of sex.

The women are requesting damages for emotional and mental distress.

Also representing the plaintiffs are Stephen Churchill of Fair Work and Oren Sellstrom of the Lawyers’ Committee.

As immigrant women of color who work in low-wage positions, “society has a way of making them feel invisible,” said Hall. “For them to come forward, it’s amazing, and they are so brave.”

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