sexual harassment in the workplace in Alabama

Sexual Harassment Part 3: Sexual Harassment in the Retail Industry

Last month, we talked about sexual harassment in the hospitality industry and the unique circumstances that put hospitality workers in greater danger being harassed or sexually assaulted on the job. This time, we will look at another working-class industry in which a high number of workers are subjected to sexual harassment; the retail industry. According to CBS MarketWatch, retail is second only to the hospitality industry for the number of sexual harassment charges that are filed each year.

When some people think of retail, it conjures up images of glamour and fashion, shopping for clothing, trying on dresses and shoes, etc. But that is far from reality for most people who work in the retail industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average full-time retail worker makes less than $33,000 per year, which is well below the U.S. median household income. In addition, 42% of those working in the industry earn a low hourly wage, defined as less than two-thirds of the median wage across the economy. Approximately 55% of low-wage workers in retail are women, and a large percentage of these women live at or near the poverty line.

Lower wage workers are more susceptible to sexual harassment largely because of their economic vulnerability. For one thing, harassers tend to target those who earn a lower income, because they believe victims are less likely to report the incident. With so many retail workers struggling to get by, the last thing they want is anything that may put their job in jeopardy.

Sexual harassment in the retail industry is not usually peer-to-peer; in a large number of cases, the harassers tend to be managers or supervisors. In a typical retail setting, the manager/supervisor has a great deal of control over the employee’s schedule. They decide what shifts the employee is working, how many hours they will be able to work, and ultimately, how much money they will be able to earn.

Oftentimes, workers feel like they need to just put up with the harassment because managers and supervisors have so much control over their financial well-being. They just endure the lewd and crude jokes and comments, and the occasional touching and groping (and sometimes worse!) for the overall betterment of themselves and their families.

In addition to the disproportionate number of low wage workers in retail, there are a couple other major reasons why sexual harassment is rampant in the industry:

Decentralized Workplaces

By its very nature, the retail industry is decentralized. The stores where most of the employees work tend to be located a significant distance from any corporate office. This means that officials in the corporate office have no regular face-to-face interaction with front-line employees and immediate managers and supervisors. They may visit the stores from time to time, but essentially, the store manager is in charge on a day-to-day basis. This type of absolute authority with no accountability makes it easier for perpetrators get away with workplace harassment.

Unclear Reporting Policies

Another common problem in the retail industry is ambiguity over who to report a sexual harassment claim to and how it is handled once you report it. For larger chain stores, the process may involve calling a designated phone number and reporting harassment to someone in corporate office or HR Department. But what happens to the information from there? How seriously do they take your complaint? What is their investigation process?

As bad as that sounds, it may be even worse in a smaller store where one or two people are in charge, and they are the ones you are supposed to report harassment to. What if one of them is the perpetrator? How can you ever expect to be treated fairly in a situation like that? In many cases, employees decide to live with the harassment rather than initiating a highly uncertain claims process.

Standing up to Workplace Harassment

If you have been sexually harassed as a retail industry worker or as a worker in any other industry, you do not have to quietly put up with it. You have legal rights, and you may be able to recover compensation and obtain other forms of relief for your situation. The best place to start is to speak with an experienced civil rights attorney.

For almost a decade and a half, attorney Kira Fonteneau has stood up for the working people of Alabama. Kira was recently recognized for her work in this area by being appointed president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. She can meet with you to discuss your case and advise you of your legal options.

For a confidential consultation with attorney Fonteneau, call our office today at 205-564-9005. You may also send us a message through our web contact form.

Sexual Harassment in the Hospitality Industry

Sexual Harassment Part 2: Sexual Harassment in the Hospitality Industry

Last time, we talked about sexual harassment in the medical field and the dire need for reforms to give female health professionals a safer work environment. This time, we turn our attention to another industry that is in badly need of reform; the food and beverage/hospitality industry. For as long as there have been bars, restaurants, hotels, and resorts, owners of many of these businesses have used a sexual undertone to attract customers.

Discriminatory hiring practices are rampant in this industry. For example, how many male waiters or female waitresses over the age of 40 does Hooters hire? Hooters is not alone, however. These same preferences are used openly by casinos in Nevada, Atlantic City, and on reservations when they are considering who to hire as cocktail waitresses to serve drinks to their patrons. So, given the atmosphere in many establishments that serve food and drinks, it comes as no surprise that sexual harassment has become ingrained into the culture.

How bad is the problem? According to the Harvard Business Review, more sexual harassment claims in the United States are filed by hospitality industry workers than by workers of any other industry. It is estimated that as many as 90% of women and 70% of men who work in this industry have reported experiencing sexual harassment.

While the #MeToo movement has helped shine the spotlight on the widespread sexual harassment and assault among members of the media, movie industry, politicians, and other high-profile professions, very little attention has been given to the issues hospitality workers routinely have to deal with.

USA Today offers some additional insights into why sexual harassment seems to be more accepted in the food and drink industry:

  • Men still rule the roost: While there are more female owners and managers in the bar and restaurant industry than ever before, the industry is still dominated by men. Owners, chefs, and managers often have absolute power, and this tends to feed their egos and make them believe they can get away with anything.
  • Sex is often part of the marketing plan: As mentioned earlier, many bars and restaurants build their entire business model around selling sex. This means that those on the frontline, especially female bartenders and waitresses, are expected to give the customers what they want. And since bartenders and waitresses depend largely on tips for a living, they feel enormous pressure to oblige.
  • Fast-paced environments: Restaurants are high-pressure environments, especially during busy times. With everyone rushing around to serve the customers, many snarky and inappropriate comments are made in the heat of the moment.
  • Work done in close quarters: Bartenders, waiters, waitresses, bus boys, dishwashers, chefs, and cleaning staff often work together in very tight and enclosed areas. This makes it more tempting for workers to engage in inappropriate behavior.
  • Disproportionate number of young workers: The hospitality industry tends to hire most of its staff from the 16 to 34 age group. For many workers, this is their first job, and they may not have a clear understanding about what types of behavior are appropriate, and what crosses the line.

Another issue that makes sexual harassment such a widespread problem within the hospitality industry is that, like in the medical field, workers are often harassed by customers. In fact, customer-based harassment accounts for a large percentage of sexual harassment claims in the industry.

What Can be Done About Sexual Harassment in the Hospitality Industry?

There are many steps that need to be taken in the food and beverage industry to effectively address the problem of sexual harassment. Here are a few of the most important:

  • Create strict anti-sexual harassment policies: It all starts with making absolutely clear to all who work at the establishment that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. If an employee believes that the company doesn’t care about it, tolerates it, or ignores it, they are much more likely to engage in inappropriate behavior. Bars, restaurants, and other establishments in the hospitality industry need to make a commitment to create a safe work environment for everyone.
  • Implement more effective reporting procedures: Having a good policy on paper is a start, but it does little good if there is not an effective way for an employee to report harassment. For example, if you are supposed to report harassment to your manager, and the manager is the one who harassed you, your complaint is not likely to get too far. There should be a separate department, perhaps online or through human resources, where an employee can safely report harassment and know that their complaint is being investigated.
  • Give all managers and workers comprehensive sexual harassment training: Everyone in the company needs to be fully trained on the sexual harassment policy, and what constitutes inappropriate behavior. There should also be training on how to effectively intervene when someone witnesses harassment, so the situation can be diffused.
  • Implement policies to protect employees from customer-based sexual harassment: Finally, restaurants and bars need to be fully committed to protecting their employees from being harassed by customers. For example, if an employee is uncomfortable serving a patron after they have made inappropriate remarks and/or advancements, they should have the right to stop serving that person. The establishment should also have a policy in which they warn customers who behave inappropriately, and if they do not comply, ask them to leave.

Harassed in the Workplace? Contact Our Experienced Alabama Employment Lawyer

If you have experienced sexual harassment as a hospitality industry worker or a worker in any other industry, it is important to speak with a skilled attorney, so you fully understand your legal rights and options. Attorney Kira Fonteneau has over 13 years of experience aggressively advocating for working people in Alabama. Kira was recently appointed president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, and she has a successful track record obtaining justice for those whose civil rights have been violated in the workplace.  For a consultation with attorney Fonteneau, call our office today at 205-564-9005. You may also send us a message through our online contact form.