The federal employment commission says sexual harassment complaints by restaurant workers are on the rise nationally.

A Honolulu restaurant must pay more than $220,000 to female servers who accused management of looking the other way when they complained of sexual harassment at work. 

Mexico Restaurant, located at 1247 N. School St. in Kalihi, agreed to pay $227,500 to settle a lawsuit filed last year by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of the servers, the commission announced Monday. 

Servers said that beginning in January 2019, a male co-worker would often touch their shoulders and hands, hug them without consent and press his body into theirs, according to a complaint. He also made inappropriate comments and tried to pressure them into dating him. 

Servers said managers ignored their complaints about being harassed by a co-worker. One server said a manger called her a “white devil,” according to a complaint. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

This behavior happened “within plain sight and earshot” of restaurant managers, the complaint says. 

One general manager also frequently called one female server a “white devil” and told her “you think you are special because you are white,” according to the complaint. 

Lawyers for the restaurant said in a written statement that the establishment is “committed to ensuring the workplace is free from discrimination, retaliation, and harassment.”

The owner, Agustin Cardenas Torres, deferred comment to lawyers.

The servers, who are not named in the complaint, said they complained on “multiple occasions” to the restaurant’s general manager about the harassment and inappropriate conduct, but nothing was done. One of the servers quit her job as a result. 

The restaurant first registered with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs in 2010 under the name Mi Pueblo Mexican Restaurant, according to business records. The name was changed in 2018 to Mexico Restaurant Inc. 

The restaurant employs more than 15 workers, according to the complaint.

In addition to paying the settlement, the restaurant must also put in place measures to prevent future discrimination in the workplace, including designating someone to monitor the business’ compliance with anti-discrimination laws, implementing policies that prohibit inappropriate conduct and establishing an internal complaint process and hotline. 

Nicole St. Germain, spokeswoman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Los Angeles office, which oversees Hawaii, said the agency has been seeing an increase in sexual harassment complaints from workers at restaurants and hospitality businesses. 

A spokeswoman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said complaints of sexual harassment in restaurant and hospitality settings are on the rise. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

“When you have positions that may have individuals who are unaware of their rights, may be more required to work upon tips and things like that, they may put up with more situations,” she said. “We find people who are younger, people who it may be their first job in this industry, are more likely to be victims of harassment because they don’t know that they don’t have to put up with that type of treatment.”

The ages of the servers in the Mexico Restaurant case are not included in the complaint, but St. Germain said they were over 18. 

Between fiscal years 2018 and 2021, complaints of sexual harassment reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission made up 27.7% of all harassment complaints reported to the commission. By comparison, sexual harassment complaints made up 24.7% of all harassment complaints reported to the commission during the three prior fiscal years.

The commission recovered $299.8 million for 8,147 individuals with sexual harassment claims between 2018 and 2021.

St. Germain said amounts paid to victims in sexual harassment cases varies broadly depending on the specifics of each case.

In the case against Mexico Restaurant, the allegations were serious enough to warrant a settlement over $200,000, she said.

“The allegations in this case were years of harassment that was going on in the workplace, that was known or should have been known by the managers there,” she said. “When it was brought to light, (the servers) were told to just deal with it or they could leave.”

Another sexual harassment case against a Hawaii establishment is pending in court. 

The commission filed a lawsuit in May against Square Barrels, a Honolulu restaurant and bar that closed in 2022. Male workers said the owner repeatedly exposed himself to them in the restaurant and on the building’s rooftop, touched them inappropriately and outed their sexual orientation publicly, according to the complaint.

Lawyers for Square Barrels did not return emails and calls seeking comment. 

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