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All Too Common: Sexual Harassment in the Food Industry

This personal story, conducted by Anthony Bailon, along with commentary from Title IX coordinator Leighia Fleming, sheds light on the steps and procedures of reporting sexual harassment, and eliminates some of the hesitancy that arises when reporting sexual harassment.

Read the original story by clicking the link below:


Girl: I worked for a catering company that had a storefront and I worked in the storefront as a cashier and a server. When I started working there, I got along with most of my coworkers. The management was pretty good and I had a lot of fun. A few weeks into working there, I noticed it was a little weird between a coworker and I. His name was Bob. Um, the comments started just as comments that kind of seemed innocent to me at first, like “Oh, you look really nice today.” And then it got to the point where he would comment on my body, my breasts, and my butt. And then it kept escalating from there. He would describe the sexual things that he wanted to do to me and that he wanted me to do to him. And that’s when it started to make me feel really uncomfortable.

Leighia Fleming: Right. At that point, you’re looking at harassment. If we have a one-off statement, that’s, it could be harassment depending on what’s happening, but if it’s a continuous pattern, that’s becomes a policy violation. So, even if it’s just those words, as we say, that then becomes harassment. And sometimes for harassment, it could be a power differential. It could be my boss, you know, that’s quid pro quo. We look at all those dynamics to make the determination; does it reach this threshold of harassment?

Girl: I didn’t want to say anything to management because it was only him and I working in the storefront at that time. I didn’t want to say something to management and have them say something to him and make it awkward between him and I at work. Because I wasn’t sure if they were going to suspend him, or just talk to him, so I just didn’t want to take any chances on that.

Fleming: Many people don’t come forward because they may know the person, they don't want to get that person in trouble, they may fear for their safety...and for those things, I would say, you know, that we have different things in place that are going to protect you if you are scared for your safety, if you’re scared for retaliation. But also, people just have to be in a space of wanting to come forward.

Girl: The big shift that made me want to tell management about what was happening came a few months after I started working. Bob and I were walking upstairs to clock out and I was in front of him and he came up behind me and grabbed my ass and he put his hands underneath my shirt and grabbed my breasts as well. And I felt so uncomfortable and just disgusted and at that point, I knew that I couldn’t keep working like that. I knew that I couldn’t be in that environment everyday, because I just felt so uncomfortable and scared and I didn't know what to do.

Fleming: At that point, if you’re at a restaurant and you tell your manager, they should be doing things to help you through that process. They should be changing shifts. They should be moving you. You also want to document these behaviors that are happening. Worst case scenario, you may want to get a restraining order, right? Like, you may want to go to those limits, if you're in the restaurant industry, per se, [you] can go directly to their HR. Individually, usually, people report things to their managers, but if something is happening with their managers, they may go above that so maybe their HR. But there should be someone at pretty much any organization in which you work with, where you can file a complaint. And if they don't, then you can also have the opportunity to defile someone with an Equal Opportunity Commission.

Girl: A few days after that incident happened, I told a friend about it, and my friend was concerned for me. So she reached out to the Title IX Office. A few days later, I received an email from the Title IX coordinator, Leighia Fleming. We set up a meeting, and I told her everything. I told her about his comments and his actions and how uncomfortable I felt. And she promised to reach out to my company's management on my behalf.

Fleming: [People] coming forward to me, I always thank them. That’s strength and is courageous enough for you to come and walk into this door. My goal is to hear you out, and to provide you with support and resources for whatever is going on in your life. And if you feel like “I’m being harassed at this place,” or “I’m being assaulted” thats not being done, so what can I do to help you get there? So, if somebody was supposed to come forward to me, what we would do is we would have that person come in and get what we would call an intake, which is where we would gather as much information as we can. And the next step is to offer support resources, like, do you need counseling? Do you need to work on your shift schedules? What can we do to make you feel more comfortable and to remove you from that harassment or to remove you from that environment? So whichever company [you work for] should be doing those first, immediate steps. And then I let them know that we are going to move forward with an investigation. Usually the investigators are the manager, are the HR. And they make the determination of “Did this happen? Did this not happen?” A lot of times, things do not go up to the Equal Opportunity Commission, but they’ll handle it internally.

Girl: The day after I met with Leighia, I went back to work. I was called into management and they asked me to tell them what happened, and I did. And they asked for statements, which i gave them, and they told me that he would be put on leave until they could do an investigation within their own company. During this process, I felt very alone. Leighia was a lot of help and she really kickstarted the whole process, but at work, she wasn’t there to support me. All the managers found out what happened very quickly, and some of the managers had been very close to Bob and I felt that they were treating me differently. Managers that had never spoken to me before were suddenly coming over during my shift, 5 to 10 times, asking if I needed anything, um, if I was okay, if I needed to talk. And for some people, that might have been helpful, but for me, it was degrading. It felt like they felt like I didn’t know how to do my job and that I couldn’t do my job without their help. And it felt like they were viewing me as less of an employee because of what had happened. I really tried to keep what happened to myself because I didn’t want anyone else to know, because it is degrading to have that happen to you at work. and I didn't want my fellow coworkers to know what happened, because I didn't want them to think of me differently or treat me differently because a lot of the managers had started to.

Fleming: With that, sometimes there's a lot of judgement around that. Like “What if I do come forward? How is this person going to judge me? Are they going to judge me? Are they just going to dismiss me?” Some people, like, they don’t want to talk about it. But there’s always options. They can come back and talk to me, they can continue to talk to HR. Because there’s things in place that if an individual wants to continue to move forward with their healing process, they have the option to do so. You will get better, but you’re never going to forget. And so, spiritually, wellness-wise, you’re going to continue to thrive, but it may be two o’clock in the morning, and you’ll have a flashback. There are survivors that I work with and they’re good, and they’re able to move forward quickly. Whereas others, everyday, it's an uphill battle. And so spiritually, for some people, it's just that “I woke up out of bed today.” and it's really up to, like, what that person and kind of where they...usually it’s what we call, like, where you were before the incident happened. Getting back to that happiness. Unfortunately, this horrible thing happened to you. It wasn’t your fault. Somebody came in and violated you, whether it was emotionally, physically; they violated you. That wasn't your fault. However, now you have the choice to move forward with your life.

Girl: Even though this was a very hard process for me to go through, and it was a very difficult time in my life, I’m glad that i'm talking about it now. Because I feel that it’s something that needs to be talked about. Sexual harassment in the food service industry is rampant and I know what happened to me wasn’t my fault. And I know that I shouldn’t feel embarrassed or shy away from talking about it. You know, in all other service places I've worked, it has happened to me, it has happened to women that I've worked with, and we’ve all kept it to ourselves, not wanted to talked about it, and felt embarrassed. But it is something that needs to be talked about, because it needs to stop. And I hope that talking about this today brings a little bit more awareness to something that is all too common.

This personal story, conducted by Anthony Bailon, along with commentary from Title IX coordinator Leighia Fleming, sheds light on the steps and procedures of reporting sexual harassment, and eliminates some of the hesitancy that arises when reporting sexual harassment.

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