Workers sue McCormick & Schmick’s for sexual harassment

Five Latina employees of a location in the Boston area claim a “sexually offensive work environment.”

Five Latina employees of a Boston McCormick & Schmick’s location have sued the restaurant chain, claiming that supervisors at the location created an “abusive work environment.”

Backing the lawsuit is the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, a Boston-based nonprofit that works with law firms and community groups to work on behalf of immigrants and people of color.

The lawsuit, filed in a Massachusetts court, comes amid mounting attention being paid to sexual harassment in the workplace, particularly at restaurant companies. Just this week, the celebrity chef Mario Batali stepped down from his own company amid sexual harassment allegations.

In this instance, the five employees hold low-wage jobs as dishwashers, cleaners and prep cooks, according to the lawsuit, which claims they were subjected to “a humiliating and sexually offensive work environment.”

“Our clients worked in precarious, low-wage positions such as dishwashers, cleaners and prep cooks,” Sophia Hall, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, said in a statement. “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.”

In a lengthy statement sent late Tuesday, McCormick & Schmick’s parent company, Landry’s, said an investigation in 2015 led to one employee being fired. The statement, from Vice President of Human Resources Julia Liebelt, noted that both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination declined to prosecute the issue.

“McCormick & Schmick’s strives to maintain a harassment-free environment,” Liebelt 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.”

But she also took issue with some of the charges in the case.

 “Plaintiffs’ lawyers have latched onto the current frenzy concerning sexual harassment and filed a lawsuit citing inflammatory allegations that conflicted with statements of their own clients and at least one independent eyewitness identified during our investigation said was untrue,” Liebelt said. “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.”

The lawsuit says they were subjected to fondling and other lewd behavior. The lawsuit says that the location’s executive chef once grabbed his crotch and said to one of the women, “This is your food.”

The lawsuit also says that a sous chef and supervisor followed one of the women into a walk-in cooler and groped her. It also says a co-worker pinned a woman against a table and rubbed his groin against her back.

The lawsuit says that workers brought complaints to the location’s general manager, “who failed to take appropriate action.”

The complaint also says that the workers brought their complaints to McCormick & Schmick’s human resources department, which conducted its own investigation. The chain took “some remedial actions,” but discredited the workers’ accounts and denied they suffered sexual harassment, the complaint says.

The lawsuit charges McCormick with “an utter failure to grasp the dynamics of sexual harassment,” in part because the company said that some conduct was unlikely to be sexual in nature because one of the alleged perpetrators was younger than one of the victims.

Only one of the five workers filing the lawsuit currently works with the company. The others worked there in varying ranges ending in either 2015 or 2017, according to the complaint, which seeks unspecified damages.

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