11/17/2011 06:21 pm ET | Updated Jan 17, 2012

Golden Opportunity for the National Restaurant Association to Do the Right Thing

Reporters, pundits and even voters are talking about reports that Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain allegedly sexually harassed at least four women during his tenure as CEO of the National Restaurant Association (NRA). Two received settlements from the NRA equal to their entire year's salary in return for signing a nondisclosure statement to ensure the matter wouldn't be subject to public scrutiny. And now one -- Sharon Bialek -- has come forward with a credible story of asking Cain for a job, only to be subjected to a crude sexual assault -- if true, a clear abuse of power and position.

Nationally-syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker suggested that sexual harassment is murky territory. "Nothing is more subjective than sexual harassment," she wrote last week. Actually, the legal definition is sexual harassment is quite clear: "Unwelcome verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment."

Over the next few days, Ms. Bialek and her allegations will be vetted by the national media and various political players for their own ends. In order to assess Mr. Cain's fitness to be our nation's leader, the public deserves to know whether he used his power and position to bully and exploit subordinates. In order to put together all the pieces of the puzzle, the NRA needs to release the women from their "gag orders" so the public can learn the truth.

The restaurant industry is notorious for being a male-dominated environment ripe with inappropriate sexual conduct and comments. A majority of restaurant managers, chefs and owners are men -- the U.S. has six times as many male head chefs as female.

Restaurants are ground zero for working women when it comes to discrimination and harassment. Even though restaurants employ less than nine percent of American workers, 37 percent of sexual harassment charges and settlements reported by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission so far this year involved the food service industry. That's an outsized problem.

In a career and personal development class I've taught at Metropolitan State College of Denver, many students worked as servers and bartenders to put themselves through school. Female and male students detailed the treatment they receive at area restaurants:

  • "Sexual harassment between co-workers in restaurants is widespread; it's part of the culture. I'm glad it's not part of my life anymore." -- David, server
  • "Her schedule, her request for time off, her duties were changed because she refused to sleep with her boss." - Nichole about her roommate who is a server
  • "My manager would say inappropriate things to me and make inappropriate gestures. Nothing was done." -- Deanna, bartender
  • "Our manager would make comments about the bodies of female employees ... he would also violate our personal space. We felt somewhat helpless." -- Cassie, hostess
  • "It made me feel degraded and disrespected and used." -- Amy, server
  • "I work in a restaurant and there is a lot of sexual harassment between customers and servers." -- Lauren, server

Moreover, even though the majority of restaurant workers are female, women earn far less than men regardless of the position. According to analysis by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, waitresses earn almost $70 per week less than waiters earn. Women of color fare even worse with a $4/hour wage gap between them and the rest of the restaurant industry. The reality is the majority of all food service workers earn poverty-level wages; it's just that women get an even worse deal.

Pay discrimination is one way to puff up profits but there are others. The NRA vigorously lobbies in Congress, state legislatures and at the ballot box to oppose policies that most of us consider basic workplace protections, like minimum wage and overtime pay laws, paid sick days and smoke-free workplaces. The public would find the NRA's policy agenda to be repugnant if it were widely known.

But Mr. Cain's predicament presents the NRA with a golden opportunity to repair the industry's bad reputation when it comes to their treatment of women workers. I urge the NRA to set an example by taking the lead to proactively root out and take steps to prevent sexual harassment within the restaurant industry, and by ending their opposition to basic workplace protections that are good for restaurant employees and employers alike. It's not only good PR -- it's the right thing to do.