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Management at a Perkins Family Restaurant on Staten Island, N.Y., turned a blind eye for decades to the “extreme sexual harassment” by a male cook the company knew was “preying upon young female” waitresses and hostesses, eight women charge in a federal lawsuit.
The March 19 proposed class action draws further attention to what many believe is an endemic problem: sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal anti-harassment laws protecting private-sector workers, warned in a report released in June 2016 that restaurants are a type of workplace at high risk for the creation of sex-based hostile work environments.
Restaurants rely on customer service or client satisfaction, often tolerate or encourage alcohol consumption by employees, and are marked by limited communication between organizational levels, three known sexual harassment risk factors, the report said.
The EEOC report followed a similar 2014 report from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. The worker advocacy group found that approximately 66.6 percent of female workers reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment at the hands of their managers, while nearly 80 percent of women said they’d been sexually harassed by restaurant co-workers.
The lawsuit against Perkins includes claims under federal, state, and New York City anti-harassment laws and seeks compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of a class of more than 150 female workers from January 2015 through the date of final judgment in the case. It names Perkins & Marie Callender’s LLC, which does business as Marie Callender’s, as well as Perkins Family Restaurants LP, the apparent corporate owners of the Staten Island franchise, the cook—Humberto Cuenca, and the location’s general manager as defendants.
“We do not comment on incidents involving franchised locations, nor do we comment on lawsuits,” a Perkins and Marie Callender’s spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law in a March 20 email.
A woman who answered the phone at GDG Enterprises Inc., one of the apparent franchise owners, told Bloomberg Law March 20 that she couldn’t answer questions or otherwise comment on the lawsuit.
The sexual harassment that Perkins cook Humberto Cuenca subjected the eight women who filed the lawsuit and a class of other similarly situated female workers to included crude and vulgar sex talk, the complaint says.
Cuenca also groped, slapped, and rubbed the women’s buttocks and other private body parts and thrust his groin or hand against their buttocks when they bent over to pick something up, the complaint alleges. He also forcibly kissed one woman, licked another woman’s ear, regularly simulated fellatio and masturbation with kielbasa, bananas, and other foods and props, and offered women money for sex, the complaint says.
The “unmitigated” degradation, assault, and abuse by Cuenca went on for more than 20 years and was primarily directed at waitresses and hostesses between the ages of 18 and 32, the lawsuit says. Cuenca is “believed to be in his fifties,” the complaint says.
Women complained repeatedly to the restaurant’s general manager, Jacinta Plutzer, and another manager, the lawsuit alleges. They not only failed to put an end to the harassment, but in some instances “disturbingly blamed” Cuenca’s victims. Complaints also drew admonishments from management that waitresses and hostesses are “a dime a dozen” and that Cuenca, as a cook, would be too difficult to replace, the lawsuit says.
Management’s failure to act was so complete, no matter how often the women reported Cuenca or pleaded with him to leave them alone, that it took the intervention of a family member to finally put a stop to it, the women say. That intervention came in May 2017, after Cuenca had cornered one of the named plaintiffs in a freezer and “sexually attacked” her. The family member’s threat to have Cuenca arrested finally forced management to step in and suspend him, according to the lawsuit.
Slater Slater Schulman LLP represents the proposed class. No attorney had filed an appearance yet for the companies or individual defendants.
The case is Andreopoulos v. Perkins Family Rests., LP, E.D.N.Y., No. 1:18-cv-01711, class complaint filed 3/19/18.
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