Since the #MeToo movement began, most of the coverage has centered on prominent women in their 20s and 30s, and those with more established careers. Not much has been heard from teenagers and young women, who begin to experience sexual harassment at an early age — as young as 11 to 13 years old, according to a survey from Stop Street Harassment, and peaking at ages 14 to 17.
Some of that may be because younger people experience even more intimidating power differentials due to their age, or because they tend to work in the service industry, where harassment is often overlooked. There's some indication that dynamic could be shifting: A group of Alabama teenagers filed a federal lawsuit over the weekend against Arby's franchisee, Beavers Inc.
The suit, which was filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), says the young women faced "severe, pervasive, unwanted, degrading and offensive sexual conduct" by a team lead whose conduct was "open and notorious," and widely known by supervisors and managers.
According to the complaint, the team lead told one worker who bent over to get food from storage, "I'm gonna tear your ass up." He "frequently" made comments about the size of another employee's breasts, asking to touch them, put his face in them, or insinuating that he wanted to perform oral sex on her if she preferred, saying, "You look like you got something good down there."
As is so often the case, the defendant showed another female employee a photograph of his penis and commented on its size, and he repeatedly pursued a few of them outside of the workplace, the plaintiffs say. He "sent Facebook and text messages begging [them] to come home with him or let him come home with them," sprinkled his requests with questions about sexual acts, and attempted to follow a few of them home "without invitation."
The extent of the allegations is bonkers, to be honest — but sadly, not uncommon. In a statement to the National Law Review, Marsha Rucker, the regional attorney for the EEOC's Birmingham District, warned employers that merely "having a written policy" against sexual harassment isn't enough, and that they have to do more. "Employers must take complaints of sexual harassment seriously and act promptly to stop harassment of their workers," she said — no matter the work atmosphere.
A recent series of interviews in The New York Times painted a portrait the harassment restaurant workers face (or in some cases, embrace) to get better tips. But on the other side of the table, many of the people in power at restaurants — including managers and owners — have cultivated sexually coercive atmospheres, shrugging off the behavior as part and parcel of the food industry.
In December, celeb chef Mario Batali apologized for his exploits with a tone-deaf link to a recipe for pizza dough cinnamon rolls. Other notable restaurateurs, including John Besh, Charlie Hallowell, and Ken Friedman, are facing staff and company reorganizations after their own misdeeds came to light. While it will take years of change to change institutionalized behavior at places like these, it's nice to know that, at the very least, the youngest of workers in this industry feel empowered to say, "Enough." Hopefully, it'll inspire other young women in the industry to speak up as well.
Refinery29 has reached out to Arby's for comment and will update this story if we hear back.