EEOC Sues California Restaurant Chain for Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against an Italian restaurant chain in California for allegedly allowing female employees to be subjected to sexual harassment by male supervisors and coworkers. The company was accused of failing to stop the misconduct and retaliating against workers who spoke up.

The EEOC brought the lawsuit against Il Fornaio in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on Aug. 24. Il Fornaio has many locations across California, including restaurants in Walnut Creek, Palo Alto, Burlingame, Santa Clara, San Jose, and Corte Madera.

According to the EEOC, the harassment allegations go back to 2016. Female employees began complaining about misconduct to restaurant management both verbally and in writing. However, their employer ignored the complaints and refused to take any corrective steps.

The EEOC lawsuit originated from harassment allegations from a former II Fornaio employee. She worked as a restaurant hostess from 2017 until her resignation in May 2019 due to “ongoing sexual harassment.” Other female workers reported similar mistreatment, including “frequent and offensive” sexual remarks, unwanted touching, and being shown pornography on smartphones.

Il Fornaio allegedly failed to investigate the sexual harassment complaints or take action to stop the inappropriate behavior. Employers have a legal duty to address complaints about sexual harassment in the workplace and handle allegations of misconduct seriously. Retaliating against employees who speak up is unlawful.

When female workers complained about the harassment, Il Fornaio management allegedly retaliated against them by cutting their hours, denying requests for time off, assigning more challenging tasks, and even issuing threats. The restaurant also discouraged other workers from coming forward with additional complaints.

Anna Park, a regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles district, pointed out harassment “remains a persistent problem” in the restaurant industry. She said that employers are responsible for dealing with harassment complaints in a “timely, fair and effective manner” before the misconduct gets out of hand and creates an adverse workplace culture.

In January 2022, the EEOC issued a letter of determination finding “reasonable cause” that Il Fornaio had violated anti-discrimination laws. The agency gave the restaurant chain a chance to fix its unlawful practices. The lawsuit moved forward when the employer failed to adequately address the EEOC’s concerns.

The EEOC did not specify the number of female employees allegedly harassed or provide details as to which Il Fornaio restaurants are involved. The agency may seek class-action status for the lawsuit. The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages and an injunction preventing the restaurant chain from further engaging in harassment.

You do not have to tolerate unlawful behavior if you have been subjected to sexual harassment at work. When an employer fails to take corrective action to stop or investigate the offensive conduct, you may have grounds to take legal action.

Discuss your situation with an experienced Oakland employment lawyer. Erlich Law Firm is dedicated to protecting the rights of San Francisco Bay Area workers. We can advise you of your options and help you pursue compensation. Contact us today for a free initial consultation.

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