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Sexual harassment: Is change coming to the restaurant industry?

Chefs and other workers in the restaurant industry are fighting back against a culture of sexual harassment that they say is as prevalent as the wallpaper on the walls.

In recent weeks, employees in Oakland and Chicago have publicly shared their experiences of sexual harassment. A disgraced celebrity chef in Oakland admitted that the industry's culture of sexual harassment is wrong and that it must change. In Chicago, 12 prominent female chefs said they are speaking out in order to protect other women.

A "reckoning point" in history

In December, well-known Oakland-area chef Charlie Hallowell announced he was stepping away from the day-to-day operations of the three restaurants he founded and owns. His announcement came in the wake of a San Francisco Chronicle article in which 17 former employees accused Hallowell of sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

Hallowell issued a public apology and acknowledged that the country is at a turning point with how it deals with sexual harassment.

"We have come to a reckoning point in the history of male bosses behaving badly, and I believe in this reckoning and I stand behind it," Hallowell said. "I understand that I cannot right the past wrongs, and at the same time, I take full responsibility for all of my actions."

According to media reports, the restaurants are investigating the sexual-harassment allegations and Hallowell will have no contact with the restaurants until the investigation has been completed.

Change is happening

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune interviewed 12 prominent female chefs and sought their opinions of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.

The women shared emotionally charged experiences and said they are speaking out in order to protect women who work at lower levels in the industry.

One of the chefs told the Tribune: "I don't know where we're going, but I think it changes everything. I think it changes things for all the girls who are standing in the kitchen and don't know where their voice is."

High rate of sexual harassment

Statistics reveal that sexual harassment in food service is commonplace.

The Tribune examined 10 years of data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and found that women in food service and retail jobs file three times as many sexual harassment claims as other industries.

In addition, 60 percent of women who work in restaurants report they have been sexually harassed at work, according to a survey conducted by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

Change will not be easy

The Chicago chefs told the Tribune that sexual harassment in the industry is like wallpaper. "You hardly notice it" until it's called to your attention.

The pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry means the illegal behavior will not be eradicated overnight. Courage from women across the country will be needed to change the industry.

If you have questions about sexual harassment in the restaurant industry or other workplace settings, contact an attorney who focuses on this area of the law.

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