Restaurants with "wild west" themes are popping up throughout the east, but one in New York City seems to have taken the idea a bit too far, at least from the female employees' point of view.
Servers and bartenders at Johnny Utah's, a midtown Manhattan western-themed bar, claim in a new suit that the owners, in their desire to effect a "wild west party" atmosphere, fostered an hostile work environment that exploits and degrades female employees. The workers are suing for damages, both compensatory and punitive, in a New York City federal lawsuit lodged in June.
While male workers can wear shirts and jeans, and are not asked to engage in humiliating behavior, female workers are expected to encourage male customers to buy them shots of alcohol during their shifts, to sit on male customers' laps, ride a mechanical bull with other female employees and male customers, and dance on the bar, the suit says.
"The female servers are subjected to pervasive and regular unwelcome sexual comments, propositions, and physical contact by male customers," the complaint claims. "Female servers know that if they complain to management about the unwelcome sexual conduct that they will be penalized and told that they are 'not fun' and do not know how to 'throw a party.' Defendants tell female servers to be 'team players' and not complain about the sexual conduct because it is 'part of their job.'"
The suit was amended last Thursday to allege that cameras were placed throughout the restaurant to record various events, including videos of female employees taking off their shirts, kissing one another, and dancing on the bar. Clips and pictures from the recordings were placed on the restaurant's Facebook page and Twitter account without the employees' permission. Customers were also encouraged to record and post their own videos.
Among other causes of action, the plaintiffs sued under the New York City Human Rights Law, which makes it an unlawful discriminatory practice "for an employer, because of the actual or perceived age, race, creed, color, national origin, gender, disability, marital status, partnership status, sexual orientation or alienage or citizenship status of any person to discriminate against such person in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment." The plaintiffs claim that they were subjected to verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature, that it was unwelcome, and that it created a hostile and abusive work environment. The plaintiffs also brought a cause of action under the New York State Human Rights Law.
In this case, although the employers themselves were not accused directly engaging in discriminatory conduct, they were, according to the suit, aware of the conduct but failed to exercise reasonable diligence to prevent discrimination and harassment by their customers. They ratified the unwelcome sexual misconduct by male customers, and forced female employees to tolerate a hostile work environment in which they personally endured repeated sexual harassment and physical contact.
If you have been the victim of such behavior in your workplace, contact the attorneys at Schwartz Perry & Heller LLP. We can assist you in enforcing your rights under the law.