This blog post follows the the posts of two brave people who have also come forward with their stories. http://thisisablogpost.wordpress.com/
A few days ago, my brave friend opened up about sexual harassment she had experienced and witnessed while working at a popular diner in Hadley, Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, another former employee whom I have never met also spoke out about her time working there. Although I am afraid to do so, I felt it was important to talk about my own experience. I had serious trepidations about posting this. I still know and am on friendly terms with people who currently work at this establishment. I don’t want to upset them or invite mudslinging against me by sharing my story; but the fact remains that this has gone unacknowledged for too long, so while it makes me very uncomfortable and nervous to speak out, I choose to join my voice with the voices of two people who have already stepped up and told their stories.
It is worth noting that my experience was somewhat different than my fellow former employees: I was a hostess, not a server, so I was put in different situations than my friends. Luckily I never had to go into the walk-in fridge, so I did not experience the terrible situation of being physically trapped by my harasser. I started working at the diner in April of my senior year of high school. I was eighteen, had never had a job in food service before and had only worked in office environments at a prestigious college. Needless to say, I didn’t know quite what I was getting into. My first experience with harassment in the workplace at the diner was on a Friday dinner shift. One of the cooks, a man from Croatia or Albania made a reference to my outfit and told me I should be “walking the streets in Springfield.” I was wearing a black skirt, well below the knee, ankle-high boots and a gray blouse that was neither revealing, nor inappropriate as work attire. When he said this I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the fact that he had essentially just said I looked like a hooker.
I walked out of the kitchen, stunned. I recounted what had just happened to two of the other servers who were out front. One of them was a girl named Paige who had trained me as a hostess but had just moved up to server. She marched straight back into the kitchen and I heard her curse out the Croatian cook and tell him to leave me alone. For all the good it did, I appreciated someone else standing up for me. The other server, a guy named Jake assured me I didn’t look like street walker and that my outfit was work-appropriate. That first summer I worked there I didn’t experience any other overt harassment besides the head cook calling me “Mi Reina” and saying stuff like “Anything for you, mi reina.” Since it was never more than that, I didn’t think much of it. Sometimes I would hear one of the waitresses cursing at the cooks and storming out of the kitchen, clearly upset. Although I did not personally witness this harassment, I certainly heard about it, and often.
After working my last shift at the diner my first summer there, I left to attend college out-of-state. However, I worked at the diner every winter, spring, and summer break and occasionally picked up a shift if I was home for a long weekend. One summer when I came back (I can’t recall whether it was my second or third year there), a new manager had joined the ranks. Initially we got along well and there were no problems. However, by the end of the year in 2008, this manager, I’ll call him Paul, had started saying to me and sending me texts that read “Show me your tits!” I was confused and alarmed; I didn’t know why he had singled me out to say this totally out-of-line phrase to, but since we were on friendly terms, I didn’t acknowledge it other than to say “haha, no,” choosing I suppose, to take it as a joke. I still don’t know what prompted Paul to not only feel he could speak to me this way, but to choose me as his target. I had a somewhat flirty friendship with the other manager, Jed, who Paul was friends with…the texts and face-to-face proclamations of “Show me your tits” seemed suspiciously to coincide with when my flirtatious interaction began with Jed. I have wondered ever since then if perhaps Paul began to harass me because he thought that Jed might be privy to seeing my personal body parts and he was not (Just FYI, Jed was not either.) I was friendly towards Paul ever since I had met him, but I never flirted with him and never indicated that I had any interest in interacting with him beyond a professional working relationship.
The texts became more frequent and decidedly less joke-sounding. At one point, he even posted the phrase to my Facebook. I wish I had taken a screenshot of it for proof, but he must have thought better of leaving evidence of his harassment, and deleted the post soon afterwards. A few weeks later he posted “After various disappointments on your part, I have decided to unfriend you.” And he did. I can only assume that the disappointments he meant were that I refused to acquiescence to his request that I expose myself to him.
The day before Easter 2009, I was working the day shift, and Paul once again said, “You should show me your tits.” It was the middle of the afternoon, right out in the open. I was standing behind the register and two people be were within three fee of us: another male server who was buddies with Paul, and a semi-regular customer sitting at the counter who was also one of Paul’s buddies. He had just propositioned me in front of witnesses, including a customer. Neither of the witnesses said anything, but I found my voice and gave an unequivocal “NO.” Instead of backing down or walking away, Paul scowled and said “Eh, you probably won’t show them because you’ve got saggy, African tits.”
Far from defending me, the two onlookers laughed. I was shocked and disgusted, I felt totally vulnerable and helpless, especially since my coworker had not defended me to Paul. I had had enough. I decided that the next day I would speak to one of the owners about what Paul was saying to me. However, I woke up the next morning with a terrible stomach virus and had to call out sick from work. Two days later I went back to school and did not return to my job until my summer break. By then I felt too much time had gone by to talk to the owners about what had happened earlier that spring. I thought they wouldn’t believe me given that it had been months since the incident. True, I hadn’t gotten any more texts from Paul since Easter, but I wish that I had said something to the owner so that it was on record and he was aware of it, because once I was back for the summer, Paul started treating me horrendously. He spoke to be very sharply, acted impatient, had a condescending tone when he spoke to me, and was extremely critical of me. Eventually I found out through the server grape vine that Paul and a regular customer (whom I had only spoken to a total of three times maybe, ever) had taken to calling me “The Shoe” behind my back. Essentially they were calling me a tease, likening me to a shoe caught on a fishing hook when they thought they had gotten a bite from a fish. Again, I had never indicated to either Paul or this customer that I was interested in anything beyond what was expected of my job description.
Paul’s treatment of me continued to be so nasty that I started feeling physically ill before the shifts I knew I would or might be working with him. I started having intense heartburn, terrible stomach pains, and it got to a point where I had to take pepto bismol before work just to ease the acid in my stomach exacerbated by the prospect of having to work with Paul. One Friday dinner shift I was feeling particularly nauseous. I told Jed I was feeling ill and he said, “Don’t tell me; Paul’s working tonight.” So when Paul arrived, I reluctantly I told him that I was feeling sick and if it was at all possible, could I please go home relatively early if we weren’t busy? Paul ignored me. A few hours into my shift, another of the managers, Tim, who knew I wasn’t feeling well, asked me, “It’s so slow. Why won’t Paul send you home?” When I told him I didn’t know, Tim said, “What’s he waiting for, you to puke all over the register?” Not five minutes later Paul appeared and said to Tim, “You should head on home now, Tim. It’s not going to pick up anytime soon.” I however, I had to stay for another hour and a half. This is just one example of the intimidation Paul held over me. His actions made it crystal clear that he could do as he pleased and there was nothing I could do about it.
My anxiety about working with Paul got so bad that my stomach pains worsened and I had to find another hostess to cover my shift several times before the summer was over. It got so bad that there were times I couldn’t eat because everything made the pain from hyper-acidity worse. I went to the doctor and had several tests done and was told I either had gastritis or even a possible small ulcer. My anxiety about having to work with Paul had greatly irritated and very likely burned a hole in the lining of my stomach. Needless to say that when I returned to school at the end of the summer, I started feeling better, my anxiety had subsided once I was safely over a hundred miles away from my harasser.
I only worked maybe 3 or 4 shifts after that. I was mostly able to avoid Paul. But even to this day when I go into the diner (which I patronize now only because it is the only place my mother’s husband will agree to go out to eat with us) Paul pretends he doesn’t know me, he looks right past me and through me when I enter, exit, or pass the register. When I’m sitting at a table, I get icy glares. I have never done anything to deserve his disrespectful, unprofessional, and sexually harassing behavior while I was employed at the diner and I’ve never done anything to him since, yet I still feel as though he has the upper hand, and each time I see him there, I feel small and powerless all over again. He never got caught, never had to answer for his actions, and is still employed at the diner.
I am not writing this to tarnish Paul’s name, or to disparage the diner. I do not want to paint myself as a victim. I am telling my story because this behavior is unacceptable, and it is unacceptable that no one is or ever has been held accountable for sexual harassment at this establishment. I never told the owners what Paul did to me, but I did tell the manager Jed, who brushed it off and pretended nothing was wrong. My two fellow former diner employees talked about their frustration about how the owners did nothing when they reported this abuse. I’m sure I would have been just as frustrated given that the owners most likely wouldn’t have done anything about Paul anyway. Managers are hard to come by, especially those willing to work the hours required of a 24-hour restaurant, and I can hardly see them firing one because he was harassing and intimidating a hostess who only worked there on her vacations. To make matters worse, Paul was in a position of power. For a long time I didn’t feel like I even could go to the owners given that the owners and managers were all friends and would go out partying and drinking together. Their solidarity made me feel I would never get fair treatment if I were to report Paul, and I worried that they might even gang up on me or fire me for starting trouble should I inform the owners of the harassment. I didn’t feel like I had anyone in a position of authority on my side, no one who would support me, stick up for me, or protect me. So I kept my silence. I told my friends who also worked there and who had experienced their own harassment, but the best we could do was commiserate because we all knew nothing would be done to stop it.
I stopped working for the diner after I graduated from college and began working at another local restaurant where I experienced no sexual harassment whatsoever. There I learned that what I had experienced at the diner was something no one should have to suffer in silence for; this wasn’t how all service jobs were, and I shouldn’t have put up for it as long as I did. At my new job I had three managers who not only respected me, but who I knew would look out for me and even guard me from physical harm (I know this because one of them told me that he wouldn’t even hesitate before physically protecting the female staff if belligerent or creepy customers were to threaten us.) This was the kind of support I needed and did not get at the diner. Sexual harassment takes many shapes and forms and happens at all types of jobs. Just because we don’t (or can’t) talk about it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening, and with no one in a position of power willing to be an advocate for their employees, we’re even less likely to speak up. But we need to speak up because until we do, this is going to keep happening and no one is going to do anything about it.
edit: Another person has written about her experience. Read it here: http://thesearetheproblems.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/so-you-want-to-work-at-the-diner-read-this-first/
and from a male server turned manager: http://businessofdismissal.wordpress.com/