Servers in restaurants are in a particular position of vulnerability to unlawful employment practices like sexual harassment. New York City, with its abundance of restaurants, offers countless examples, but it is a nationwide problem. Job positions for servers can be very competitive, and supervisors have considerable discretion regarding shift assignments. Furthermore, most servers are dependent on tips for their income. This places many servers in a position in which they could face harassment not only from supervisors and managers, but also from customers. A server may hesitate to speak out about harassment by a customer for fear of losing tips, and they may fear speaking out against their employer for fear of losing shift assignments or their job. A lawsuit filed last year by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers an example of the sort of environment that servers face throughout the country. EEOC v. New Apple, Inc., No. 4:17-cv-01150, 2nd am. complaint (D.S.C., Dec. 14, 2017).
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of multiple factors, including sex. Through amendments to the statute and Supreme Court decisions, the definition of sex discrimination has expanded since 1964 to include pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment. The courts have identified two broad categories of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor or manager demands sexual activity in some form as a condition of employment, such as when a restaurant manager demands sexual favors from a server in exchange for the most lucrative shift assignments. A hostile work environment occurs when a general environment of unwelcome and inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature interferes with the server’s ability to do their job.
The EEOC is charged with investigating alleged Title VII violations. Claims of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination under Title VII usually begin with a complaint filed with the EEOC. If, once the EEOC completes its investigation, it finds a reasonable basis to conclude that unlawful employment practices occurred, it may try to resolve the matter with the employer without litigation. It files suit directly against employers in some cases, or else it provides the complainant with a “right to sue” letter that authorizes them to file suit themselves in federal court.