Sexual harassment is taboo, but what happens when the offender also is the customer?
GRAND FORKS – Men have called Anja Lunday suggestive names at work, grabbed her and swatted her on the rear, but one of the creepiest episodes the 21-year-old Grand Forks bar worker said she has had was a customer she started to see all the time.
“He was 30 to 40 years old. He started to show up like once a week,” she said. “Then he found me on Facebook. I’ve never messaged him back or added him back, but he’s messaged me almost every weekend for three months, and creepy stuff, too.
“He sends me messages like, ‘You drive me, let’s hang out sometime.’ And it never stops.”
Lunday figured he used her somewhat uncommon first name on the receipt to track her down on Facebook.
She said she ended up quitting the bar and working at a restaurant, only to find her stalker there, too. Eventually, she had to change her Facebook settings so no one could find her, she said.
Lunday said hers is not an uncommon story among bar workers, who often put up with sexual harassment to avoid upsetting customers because they depend on tips for part of their income.
While sexual harassment is much less common now than it was 20 to 30 years ago, it still exists, more in some workplaces than others, according to Lisa Edison-Smith, a labor attorney with Vogel Law in Fargo.
“I think it exists more based on the certain work cultures and environments. Not all bars allow harassment, but some might,” she said.
“I would like to think (there aren’t many cases) because there’s great management that doesn’t allow it to happen, but in reality I think it’s probably underreported.”
Some Grand Forks bar owners interviewed say they do have policies in place to prevent sexual harassment of their workers, but they say it hasn’t been a problem for them.
At El Roco Bottle Shop, Bar & Grill, owner Tom Endres said he addressed the issue right away when he became one of the owners of the family business.
His workers are trained to deal with customers who have gotten away with sexual harassment at other bars, he said, and the bar’s handbook says there is a zero-tolerance policy, meaning workers must report harassment immediately. “It needs to be done sooner rather than later,” he said. “It’ll never get any better; it will just get worse.”
A customer who sexually harasses an El Roco worker will be asked to apologize, he said. Failing that, he said, they’re asked to leave. “Some people were never taught to not talk to a female or anybody that way. I certainly wouldn’t want someone talking to my kid that way; these (servers) are somebody’s kids.”
Endres’ approach is similar to one recommended by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which says that “prevention is the best tool.” The commission recommends that employers let employees know they strongly disapprove of sexual harassment, informing employees of their rights to raise the issue and developing appropriate sanctions.
Sarah Horak, an owner of Brick & Barley Bar and Restaurant, Level 10 Lounge and O’Really’s Irish Pub, said her downtown bars have a similar policy to El Roco. “But rarely do we have those kinds of issues arise. We don’t hear about it all that often;, it’s not something that’s an issue for us.”
Some bars, like Joe Black’s down the street from Horak’s bars, don’t have a formal policy.
Dennis Blackmun, one of the owners, said there hasn’t been a need for one.
“It’s not a big deal here,” he said. “I would say we may have to kick someone out maybe twice a month. In the seven or eight years I’ve been here, I don’t recall one touching incident. The only issues we’ve had are with customers who aren’t regular customers.”
If a worker has a problem, he said, he or she can get the security guards to ask the offender to leave.
Lunday, though, said the problem is more widespread than bar owners believe.
“I don’t know why bars would think it’s not a problem, especially with cocktail waitresses. Even in regular restaurants, it’s a problem,” she said. “Sexual harassment is a problem in every bar, pretty much.”
She said she gave up reporting sexual harassment to her manager when she worked at the bar.
“It’s not like we’re secretive about it. We’d tell our managers and they didn’t do anything about it,” she said. “They treat it like it’s a joke.”
According to the EEOC, there are some legal ramifications for bar owners and owners of other service-industry businesses. An employer may be responsible for the acts of nonemployees if he or she knows that an employee is being sexually harassed by a nonemployee and does nothing.
Part of the problem may be because sexual harassment isn’t reported much.
North Dakota’s minimum wage for bar workers and other workers who earn tips is $4.86 an hour, much higher than required by federal law, but much lower than the $7.25 minimum wage for other kinds of workers. So there’s an incentive for bar workers to keep customers happy, even when the customers behave badly.
“Tips are why I started working at a bar in the first place,” Lunday said. “They always tip really crappy if you stand up for yourself, so it’s hard to be like ‘OK, stop.’ ”
Many other bar workers feel the same way, she said. “Everyone is just thinking about making tip money and keeping the customer happy. They don’t want to mess up the chance of getting a tip.”
Minnesota law requires tipped workers to be paid the same minimum wage as nontipped workers.
“I’d really be speculating, but I think it’s a fair conclusion that bar workers tolerate sexual harassment,” Edison-Smith said.
Toleration will depend on individuals, she said, with some drawing the line at verbal harassment and others drawing the line at physical contact. “(Servers) have to be somewhat thick-skinned to deal with patrons.”
Lunday said she hopes more awareness can improve working conditions at bars and restaurants.
“Honestly, something as simple as putting up a sign about sexual harassment would help, or even getting their name and giving them a warning,” she said. “I don’t think people understand that sexual harassment in business settings apply to the customers, not just the employees.”