Of the nearly 7,000 sexual harassment complaints filed to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) since 2010, chain restaurants Applebee’s and IHOP have been at the center of 60. These complaints have resulted in a total of eight federal lawsuits—four for each restaurant—filed against individual locations of each restaurant, as detailed in a report published by Vox on Wednesday. That's the highest number of federal sexual harassment lawsuits filed against any restaurant chain.
Applebee's and IHOP are owned by the same parent company, California-based DineEquity, but the suits pertain to the individual locations rather than DineEquity. Of the federal suits against IHOP, two are still pending, one was settled, and another was moved to arbitration. There are two additional lawsuits currently pending against Applebee’s, and two prior lawsuits that have been settled.
A pattern emerges within the suits suggesting a particularly toxic environment in the locations of these restaurants for both servers and cooks, some of whom were underage. The allegations include coworkers and superiors groping workers' genitals, rear ends, or breasts forcibly and aggressively; managers pressuring subordinates for sex; and higher-ups promising material advances to employees in return for sexual favors. In a number of these cases, complaints, when raised or escalated, were ignored or cast aside or brushed off as aspects of company culture that employees would just have to stomach.
The alleged victims include men as well as women. A class-action suit was filed last September by the EEOC against two IHOP locations owned by Khalid Ramadan in Illinois, on behalf of 11 female employees and one male employee. The male employee worked as a cook in an Alton, Illinois IHOP, and accused his location’s general manager of grabbing his rear end and crotch while also calling and sending him text messages repeatedly.
Another female defendant who worked in a nearby Glen Carbon, Illinois location of IHOP in 2011, when she was just 16, alleges that her location’s general manager, Rami Ramadan (Khalid’s brother), began making comments about her and other female servers looking “sexy.” The then-minor was reportedly forced into a position wherein Ramadan asked her to have sex with him and got angry when she declined. Court documents show numerous texts sent from Ramadan to the then-minor. “Don’t make me get violent babe, and take what I want,” he appears to tell her in one.
In another suit against a Bismarck, North Dakota Applebee’s that was settled in 2011, the location's former general manager allegedly “groped, asked for sex from, and exposed himself to 17 female employees on a regular basis,” showed his employees pornography, told sexually explicit anecdotes, and reportedly offered a raise to a subordinate if he performed oral sex on him.
DineEquity, in a statement provided to MUNCHIES on Thursday, firmly asserted that "harassment of all nature has no place in any organization, including those affiliated with DineEquity," stressing that "each franchisee establishes and adheres to their own strict policies against harassment in the workplace and we expect them to follow all local and federal laws."
As the Vox report notes, these suits reveal just how vulnerable workers in the lower rungs of the restaurant and service industry are to being targeted by bad actors. Low-wage workers at chain restaurants can often be teenagers or cash-strapped adults who are in such financial dire straits that they’re treated as if they’re expendable, or, worse, convinced that their experiences might not matter.
"It may be suggested that they are very replaceable," Laura Palumbo, communications director of the non-profit National Sexual Violence Resource Center, told Vox. "That because of their status in the workplace, no one will care about their claim or their claim won’t make a difference."