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Fast Food Has A Massive Sexual Harassment Problem

In a recent survey, 40% of female fast-food workers said they had experienced unwanted sexual attention at work.

Posted on December 6, 2017, at 3:51 p.m. ET

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Basilisa Enriquez didn't know what to think when a manager started giving her a shoulder massage in the kitchen of the Midtown Manhattan Chipotle where she worked in 2012.

“Don’t you feel pretty…wet about it?" the manager, who worked at a different Chipotle, then asked, according to Enriquez.

Enriquez, a food preparer at the burrito chain, said she had already pulled away from the massage earlier, exclaiming, “What’s wrong with you?” The manager — who was there that day to fill in for the regular manager — replied, “What did you feel?”

“A massage and I don’t like it,” she said. She was frozen and numb, and didn't understand what was going on, she recalled in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News.

A nearby coworker observing the exchange told him to stop, but the manager returned to Enriquez later. “Do you feel even more wet now?” he asked.

BuzzFeed News could not reach the manager in question. Enriquez eventually quit her job at Chipotle and withdrew from her friends and family. "I felt really bad, terrible," she said.

Hers is just one voice describing the rampant problem of harassment in the restaurant industry, where the mean annual wage is $20,460 and the workers tend to lack the platform to tell their stories and the financial resources to afford the risk of retaliation for speaking up. Allegations by and against celebrities brought the issue to a head this year — Time magazine on Wednesday named many of these "Silence Breakers" its person of the year — but the problem infects every corner of the work world, especially those far from Hollywood, according to experts.

Sexual harassment "often involves an imbalance of power between a perpetrator and the person who is harassed," Sarah Fleisch Fink, director of workplace policy and senior counsel for the National Partnership for Women & Families, told BuzzFeed News. "That imbalance of power is even more pronounced for women who are paid low wages, in jobs that provide no workplace supports and few protections, so it’s not surprising that the problem is especially widespread in the fast-food industry."

Forty percent of women in the fast-food industry said they had experienced unwanted sexual attention on the job in a survey conducted by Hart Research for NPWF and other women's groups last year. The harassment resulted in stress, anxiety about coming to work, and even depression, yet less than half of these women reported anything to their employers.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called the survey results "a wake-up call for the fast-food industry, one I sincerely hope they heed."

In a discussion of risk factors for harassment in a 2016 study, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cited decentralized workplaces such as retail stores and chain restaurants, where corporate offices are far from frontline employees and managers may feel unaccountable for their behavior.

Advocates were calling attention to the issue long before awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace surged this year. The Fight for $15 campaign, which advocates for higher pay for low-wage workers, released a video in 2016 detailing fast-food workers' experiences of harassment.

In a complaint to EEOC last year, McDonald's workers alleged transgressions such as a $1,000 offer for oral sex, groping on the job, and a manager showing an employee a dick pic.

As BuzzFeed News reported at the time, "The burger chain has a 'zero tolerance' policy on sexual harassment, but workers allege that managers at stores across the country have touched them inappropriately, shown them lewd pictures, and offered cash for sexual favors, all without consequences. In some cases, employees say they experienced retaliation at work for reporting the behavior."

Back in 2012, three days after the encounter with the fill-in manager at Chipotle, Enriquez decided to speak up. She reported it to her regular manager, who relayed it to Chipotle headquarters. An internal investigation found that the harasser had allegedly touched the shoulders of another female employee at a different Chipotle location. Chipotle fired him.

Yet Enriquez, in her early fifties at the time, said she returned to a hostile work environment.

Her daughter Daniela said in a letter to the NYC Commission on Human Rights, "My mother was being treated like an outcast; she was given more responsibilities, was not allowed a lunch break, and was being spoken to very rudely." Enriquez later filed complaint against Chipotle with the commission.

"She felt like she was still being punished," Daniela told BuzzFeed News. "She hid it from everyone until she just broke down. Then she told us the truth — we didn't know ourselves until she couldn't take it anymore."

Enriquez "felt stressed, depressed, withdrawn, and shut down as a result of the sexual harassment and retaliation she experienced," according to materials provided by the commission. "She even sought treatment with a therapist for the depression and PTSD. She said the feelings she experienced caused her to end friendships with coworkers and withdraw from close relationships in her life, like her daughter. She said even hearing the name 'Chipotle' makes her feel ill." This past October, following an investigation by the commission, the company settled the case for $10,000.

Chipotle said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that, while it could not comment on specific details of this case, "We do not tolerate harassment of any kind in our restaurants, and have robust policies in place to ensure that any such issues can be easily reported and thoroughly investigated. If ever such allegations are raised, we conduct a comprehensive review of the incident and take appropriate corrective action, up to and including termination."

Seth Hoy, a spokesperson for the commission, said while "restaurant worker complaints about harassment are not uncommon at the commission," Chipotle "did a good job in responding" and the company agreed to provide every employee in New York City with information about human rights. "Everyone in New York City is legally protected against sexual harassment in the workplace," Hoy said. The commission will hold a public hearing on sexual harassment on Dec. 6.

CORRECTION

An earlier version of this article misstated the mean annual wage of fast-food employees.

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