Restaurant workers quietly suffer sexual harassment and assault

Sexual assault and harassment are often hidden and underreported in large part because the victims tend to be immigrant women who are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.

Maria Vazquez, 50, had been working as a cook and dishwasher at Art’s Wings and Things in South LA for over two years when she alleges her employer, Art Boone, raped her.

“The first time he did it, I couldn’t believe what had happened to me,” she said. “I only knew that my ears were ringing, my head hurt, my eyes were popping out of my head. I was crying. My head was exploding and I couldn’t stop crying.”

Maria Vazquez (Photo: Karen Foshay)
“We were all moms, some of us alone, who have to pay rent, pay electricity bills. So paired with the fear he instilled in us, we just stayed quiet in our jobs,” said Maria Vazquez (Photo: Karen Foshay)

Vazquez’s story represents an extreme form of abuse in the restaurant industry. Sexual assault and harassment are often hidden and underreported in large part because the victims tend to be immigrant women who are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.

More than 10 years passed before Vazquez won a court judgment validating her story of sexual assault and harassment after she made the difficult decision to come forward and be named publicly in the case.

She recalled that Boone had cornered her in the warehouse in the back of the restaurant while she was doing inventory, she recalled.

After the assault she said he took her shopping at Costco.

“And when we got to the store, everyone greeted him as if he was a king,” Vazquez said, “I just stared at him. I felt as if he was telling me: ‘See? Everyone adores me.’”

Vazquez continued working at the South LA restaurant for six more years, and claims once or twice a month Boone would ask her to do inventory in the warehouse, where he forcibly raped her. She said she fought back, but he would overpower her, leaving her with bruises.

On one occasion, Boone assaulted Vazquez “even though he was aware that her grandchild was waiting for her in the car,” according to her lawsuit against him.

In 2012, when she was transferred to the owner’s other restaurant in Inglewood, Vazquez believed she’d escaped the attacks because the second location didn’t have a warehouse. But instead, Tuesdays became the most dreaded day of the week.

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Tuesday mornings

On Tuesdays, Vazquez was the first employee scheduled to work so Boone would meet her with the keys. According to her lawsuit, Vazquez was routinely assaulted by Boone in the bathroom before the business opened.

Vazquez never reported the assaults to law enforcement out of fear she’d lose her job. She was the sole provider for her six children; the youngest was 5 at the time.

Boone was not charged by law enforcement and has not returned repeated calls for comment on this story. It’s unclear if he is still the owner of the restaurant. He denied the allegations in a July 2014 court-filed response to the lawsuit.

Another employee at the restaurant, Maria del Sol Perez recalls the female staff plotting not be alone with Boone in the pantry area of the restaurant when he’d ask them to retrieve supplies.

“I would run in to grab something and would get out of there quick so he wouldn’t come in,’ recalled del Sol Perez. “We were always afraid of working in there.”

Both women said they were too scared to speak up out of fear of being fired.

After her shift, Vazquez would drive home and sit in her car and cry and then clean herself up enough to go into the house and do homework with the kids. This routine went on for years until, in October 2013, Boone tried to lower her hourly wages. That’s when she finally quit.

Getting help

A few months after leaving, Vazquez sought medical help for the sexual abuse but was too embarrassed to tell the male doctors she’d been raped. Eventually she saw a female physician and disclosed what had happened to her.

Aside from being sexually assaulted, Vazquez said she worked for years without receiving overtime pay, often putting in 70-hour workweeks. According to her lawsuit, Boone would at times fail to pay her wages in full or on time.

Vazquez thought she might have a legal case against Boone for both back wages and the sexual assaults, but had a difficult time finding a lawyer to take her case.

“The case would take too long and they wouldn’t make any money on it. So there was no case, they said.”

Maria Vazquez reviews her recent award of over $1.4 million in her sexual assault and wage theft lawsuit against her former employer. So far, she hasn't collected on any of it. (Photo: Karen Foshay)
Maria Vazquez reviews her recent award of over $1.4 million in her sexual assault and wage theft lawsuit against her former employer. So far, she hasn’t collected on any of it. (Photo: Karen Foshay)

Thanks to a chance encounter with an employee from the Labor Commissioner’s Office, Vazquez learned she could file a wage claim. While at the Labor Commissioner’s downtown Los Angeles office, she saw a pamphlet for Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles, a non-profit organization which assists restaurant workers with various legal issues.

ROC-LA director Kathy Hoang remembers meeting Vazquez and hearing her account for the first time.

“It really hit me in the gut. It was horrible to hear,” said Hoang, who wasn’t surprised Vazquez tolerated the abuse for so long.

“A large majority of workers who are immigrants face very real consequences,” said Hoang, adding, “What do you do after you call the police? Where will you find a job that will provide you with enough money to feed the family? What will you do when or if your boss calls immigration?”

Hoang connected her with Bet Tzedek Legal Center, which represented her in the sexual harassment claim.

She was fortunate to find legal assistance. There are fewer than 70 public interest legal aid lawyers statewide who practice wage and hour law.

Employees secretly recorded, groped, grabbed

Sexual harassment and assault is generally considered an underreported offense, and in the restaurant industry, where so many are working without legal permission because of their immigration status, it’s grossly underreported, according to experts.

Christine Park-Gonzalez has investigated hundreds of sexual assault and harassment cases involving immigrants during her 15 years with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Fear of deportation, cultural differences and the possibility of being shunned by family members are all reasons why she’s seen immigrants hesitate to report sexual harassment or assault.

Park-Gonzalez said abusers take advantage of this. “The workers can be more susceptible to being victimized because their harassers will target them more.”

One male cook, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared he would be fired, told KCRW, “Sexual abuse in the restaurant where I work is grave because those of us who work there would see how the boss would abuse the girls there. Often times we would see how he would take the girls into his office and sit them on his lap, putting his hands into their back pockets, slapping their behinds.”

He said the women never said anything, fearing they’d lose their jobs. All were immigrants.

It’s hard to get an accurate picture of how widespread the harassment is. The EEOC said it does not have complete data on the number of sexual assaults and harassment in the restaurant industry.

In 2014 ROC reviewed over 20 consent decrees involving the EEOC and restaurants and found $10 million in damages and settlements were awarded to dozens of restaurant workers.

The documents allege employees were subjected to various forms of harassment, including groping, grabbing and being secretly filmed in bathrooms. Some well-known chains are subject to the decrees, including Panda Express, McDonald’s and Cracker Barrel.

In a statement to KCRW, Christin Fernandez, Director of Communications & Media Relations for the National Restaurant Association, said sexual harassment is taken very seriously and has no place in the work environment. The organization represents nearly 500,000 food service establishments.

“Many restaurants have implemented their own employee training programs and we continue to work with our members to provide the knowledge and tools needed to build positive work spaces for employees and their customers.”

In May, Arthur Boone was ordered to pay Vazquez $86,000 in back wages and over $1.4 million in the sexual harassment lawsuit. To date, she hasn’t received any of it.