Harassment cases start hitting New York companies

Crain's Cara Eisenpress
November 19, 2017

After a well-known chef tried but failed to drag Rachel Waynberg, then a 27-year-old restaurant marketer, into the bathroom at a party, he still bragged to everyone around that he’d had sex with her.

Last year, as Iman Oubou, the founder of Swaay, a new-media company for women entrepreneurs, wrapped up her first-ever investment meeting, the potential backer suggested they could “seal the deal” in his hotel room.

When Amy Rose Spiegel, the editor-in-chief at Brooklyn-based Talkhouse Media, was 19 and interning at Death & Taxes seven years ago, co-founder Stephen Rockwell harassed her and other interns, she alleged on Twitter Nov. 1. Rockwell stepped down from his executive post at Billboard the next day.

“I’ve been harassed at nearly every job I’ve ever held,” wrote Spiegel.

These three New Yorkers, along with hundreds of women across the country, have come forward with stories of sexual harassment since the Harvey Weinstein allegations were published last month. They have implicated the media, the art world, technology and venture-capital companies, restaurants, government and the film industry all central segments of New York City’s economy.

But women aren’t just talking about harassment in particular New York industries or companies. They are damning an entire work culture where inappropriate advances and a power dynamic that shields harassers impede victims’ careers and lives. Despite the spate of accusations on social media many of which do not name a harasser few incidents have resulted in consequences. That suggests that the current scandals are an overture and that New York City, with so many of its industries in the crosshairs, could become the epicenter of the fallout from this cultural shift.

The number of sex-based harassment cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in New York state rose 9% over five years, to 1,202 in 2016. That year the New York City Commission on Human Rights counted 124 gender-based discrimination claims, a designation that includes sexual harassment, up from 98 the year before. Overall, 10% of working New Yorkers say they’ve experienced some kind of harassment on the job, according to a poll by the Cornell Survey Research Institute. The numbers do not nearly tell the full story, though. They only capture incidents between employers and their workers, not contractors or others who might attend a company party. And, of course, victims often do not report harassment. But more are now doing so.

“There was already an increase after the Fox News allegations, and actually since Donald Trump was elected,” said Nina Frank, an associate in the sexual harassment and sex discrimination practice group at Outten & Golden, a law firm that represents employees. “We have people come in from all industries: a lot of finance, law, retail, restaurant workers, chefs and public employees. It is everywhere.”

More scandals coming

The publishing industry has quickly followed film and television in terms of allegations that have had costs for the harassers: Lockhart Steele at Vox Media, Knight Landesman of Artforum and Billboard‘s Rockwell have resigned or been fired.

Restaurants could be next.

In the wake of allegations in New Orleans leading to celebrity chef John Besh stepping down from Besh Restaurant Group, which he founded, accusations in the New York City restaurant world are coming to light. Two lawsuits have accused Plaza Food Hall chef Todd English and his staff of harassment, and a former dishwasher at Le Bilboquet filed a suit last month claiming she had been groped in view of the manager, according to the New York Post.

For restaurant workers, “there are blurry lines late nights, alcohol,” said Waynberg, who recently moved to Washington, D.C., after more than a decade of working with chefs in New York. “There is a certain group that’s glorified more than others: TV personalities and people with 10 to 15 restaurants. You see married chefs, drunk girls. It’s the norm,” she said.

Among tipped employees, 90% have been sexually harassed at work, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which organizes workers nationwide. Fast-food workers are particularly vulnerable, with nearly half of women at quick- service joints reporting harassment.

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In advertising, a study by trade organization 4A’s found that half of women had been sexually harassed at agencies. New York City models have come out with stories of harassment and exploitation; one model and activist, Cameron Russell, last month published on her Instagram page anonymous accounts of painful experiences.

Silicon Valley’s tech companies and venture-capital firms have had founders and partners step down after harassment accusations, including at Uber, Social Finance and Draper Fisher Jurvetson. New York City’s growing tech industry has not yet experienced that but it may.

Swaay’s Oubou, who was Miss New York 2015 and has a master’s degree in biomedical engineering, said women can feel especially targeted while trying to raise money from men. “They turn the meeting into something it’s not supposed to be,” she said, “making inappropriate comments and trying to pick me up.” Before meeting that first investor, she had to persuade him to come down from his room to the hotel lobby. When he did, he greeted her with, “Oh, you wore that pencil skirt for me?”

Lack of workplace enforcement is what pushes incidents out of the office and into court. If companies deal with accusations as they arise, then harassment might not yield the hostile environment that leads to complaints and legal action.

Enforcing policy

Companies with policies must make an effort to enforce them, said Harwin. Those without a human resources department, like some restaurants, have to staff up, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of trade association New York City Hospitality Alliance. “Now is the time to build one.”

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Whether women’s disclosures will resound down the city’s wage scale, from its startup founders and law partners to the 35% of residents in lower-wage jobs, including a record-high 100,000 fast-food workers, is yet to be seen. Workers at the bottom of the pay scale have the least recourse if they are harassed or retaliated against for reporting something, according to the National Women’s Law Center, because they lack bargaining power and are least able to withstand a retaliatory cut in hours.