Juliana Sarita, with Women Organized Against Rape, leads a training to prevent and address sexual harassment against restaurant workers at a South Philadelphia taqueria. 
Juliana Sarita, with Women Organized Against Rape, leads a training to prevent and address sexual harassment against restaurant workers at a South Philadelphia taqueria.  - 
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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has singled out food service as particular “problem” field for sexual harassment. Revelations from the #MeToo movement have dethroned some high-profile restaurateurs, like Mario Batali, but change is slow to come further down the food chain. But a handful of groups across the country are trying to change that.

At a recent training at Philly Tacos, a small storefront restaurant in South Philadelphia, Juliana Sarita with Women Organized Against Rape turned the dining room into a temporary classroom.

“If a customer does something, your employer has to deal with it,” she told the nine restaurant workers, owners, and advocates in attendance, switching between English and Spnaish. Gesturing to PowerPoint slides projected on the shiny teal walls, Sarita discussed the line between flirting and harassment, what constitutes harassment under the law, and where an employee can go to complain if an employer fails to act on sexual harassment in the workplace.

This is the first training by the Coalition for Restaurant Safety and Health (CRSH), a newly formed group made up of attorneys and advocates, that wants to teach restaurant owners and workers to prevent sexual harassment. To do that, all parties need to know how the law works, according attorney and coalition co-founder Nadia Hewka.

“An employer has to be aware of a situation before they are legally liable for not curing it. It’s up to people to come forward to put the employer on notice, the employer then has to do something,” she said.

So far, the coalition’s footprint is small, but it’s part of a burgeoning trend. Restaurant workers in New Orleans have started their own group called Medusa to train restaurant owners and employees to address sexual harassment, and California-based Futures Without Violence has similar workshops.

Hewka said the timing of this initiative, coming on the heels of the #MeToo movement, was purely coincidental — because it’s not a new problem.

A 2012 survey of Philadelphia food service workers by the Restaurant Opportunity Center  found more third had experienced sexual harassment in the previous year. 

Twenty-six-year-old Mary Garten has worked in restaurants for about for about six years — first in Vermont, now in Philadelphia.

She decided to learn more about how to prevent sexual harassment on the job after she had a particularly bad experience at an Irish tavern in the suburbs where she was working. Garten said a customer groped her, which she brought it to the assistant manager’s attention.

“I went over to him and I was like, ‘Hey, that regular just grabbed my ass and it made me really uncomfortable. Will you intervene?’” she said. “Instead, what he did was he grabbed my ass and said, ‘Oh, like that?’ And so I quit.”

Turnover related to sexual harassment can feel like par for the course, said Garten, but she knows things can get better because when she lived in Vermont, more restaurants she worked for had sexual harassment policies and would enforce them.

Between losing employees and the possibility of getting sued, restaurant owners have financial incentives to try to prevent harassment. After the CRSH training wrapped up, Philly Tacos owner Juan Carlos Romero gave another reason, in Spanish, why he plans to post a new policy about sexual harassment in his restaurant.

“To have a workplace that’s nice and welcoming, not only for me,” he said, but for anyone who comes in to eat.

This article originally ran on WHYY.

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