THE BLOG
01/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Chili's Reinstates Employee, Claims Error

We have won the battle! Chili's (aka Brinker International) has reinstated my sister, Rachel Spicuglia, as a full-time employee, with medical benefits and all, at the location of her choosing. After the Huffington Post piece about Rachel"s case was posted at 12noon, Brinker International quickly backpedaled, commenting less than four hours later and contacting Rachel's attorney to state that the letter Rachel received was in error, and apologizing for the confusion and emphasizing how seriously the corporation takes sexual harassment:

Brinker does not condone sexual harassment or retaliation and has strict policies and procedures in place for dealing with such claims. We work to train all team members on this issue to create a greater understanding of its effect and consequences.

It's hard for me to imagine that Rachel's termination was some sort of computer error on the part of the benefit provider alone, especially considering that it coincided so perfectly with the end of Rachel's FMLA-protected leave of absence, and that Rachel's several calls to Chili's Human Resources went unreturned. And it seems clear to me that when it comes to Rachel, Brinker seems to be in reactive mode, acknowledging the error only after the Huffington Post piece was published (though they have not made any statement that admits any connection) and firing the employee who had repeatedly harassed Rachel only after she had secured an attorney.

But BRAVO to Brinker for doing the right thing yesterday and confirming her employment with them. It is a huge challenge for such a large company to police its many staff across the country and around the world, and they do have rigorous training which is supposed to enforce their strict company policies about sexual harassment. However, a company is only as strong as its weakest link, and the Kennesaw, GA store clearly did not maintain Brinker standards and should be held accountable.

This is a win for Rachel, but it is also a painful reminder of what women face every single day, and the vulnerability they face in hard economic times, when they are concerned about losing their jobs. The service industry is one of the fastest-growing segments of the American workforce, and the majority of women work in those professions. It is important to note that despite overwhelming show of support for Rachel's case after the article was published yesterday, there were also many sexist, cavalier, and otherwise disparaging comments and posts on other sites that attempted to place more blame at Rachel's feet, or dismiss the sexual harassment suit altogether. When EJ Graff highlighted Rachel's case on Slate's XX Factor, Susannah Breslin wrote a detailed response (based on a two-year stint she worked in restaurants), about the general dysfunction of restaurant work environments (drugs, sex, violence), commenting:

When it comes to sex -- or sexual harassment, for that matter -- the situations are often neither black nor white but decidedly gray. The idea that it's possible to eliminate or police human sexuality in any context is a fantasy.

Breslin of course feels more confident saying this by noting that she hails from Berkeley and understands the "feminist rhetoric, with academics in ivory towers who point down at the masses to declare what the populace should and should not do." She finished off with a recommendation that we all go read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, and apparently just get over it.

Well, I am a ten-year veteran of the restaurant industry, have read the book (fabulous, a must-read!), and can also confirm from my experience some of the dysfunction Breslin presents. However, I am appalled that she makes no distinction between consensual sex and sexual harassment, or states that servers flirting for tips is an example of how servers "sexually harass" men right back. I strongly believe - and have experienced - that a respectful environment is possible and should be more commonplace.

In fact, I have to note that of the more than ten restaurants I have worked in over the years (in CA and NY), of various sizes and management styles, the safest and most structured, respectful environments were in the corporate restaurants (one of which was owned by Brinker International - my experience with them was fine). The places I experienced the worst harassment and discrimination were in smaller restaurants (both fine dining and casual cafes), partly because they tended to reflect the styles of their sexist owners and managers, but also because smaller, younger restaurants often do not encourage staff to report harassment and rarely have severe policies and procedures in place for employees who violate the law. Breslin cites financial desperation for the reason servers leverage their sex appeal, without noting that often male servers are given preferential treatment, better shifts, better sections, and schmooze time with the boss.

Rachel's sexual harassment lawsuit will be moving forward, but she will not lose her job thankfully. Still, her case is not an isolated one, and not everyone has the resources to mount a mass protest like we were able to. There are too many people like Breslin who see sexual harassment as a general mass of "gray area" incidents. Regulating behavior in the workplace IS possible and happens every single day, as employers set a code of conduct for their employees to maintain. In addition, the impact of state legislation and regulation supporting Title VII cannot be underestimated, and Georgia residents would be better served by implementing their own laws, taking sexual harassment and employment law seriously.

Thanks to everyone for the overwhelming show of support for Rachel's case. In a mere 12 hours, over 200 emails were sent in protest to Brinker, posts on multiple websites and networks, and even a local email campaign started in Kennesaw, GA. Rachel is truly grateful for your efforts on her behalf, and we are touched by the many holiday blogposts celebrating the happy result (Linda Lowen's at About.com, Gloria Feldt's, and many more). This makes for a very happy holiday for our family!