Chili's Fires* Long-Time Employee After Sexual Harassment Claim [UPDATED]

When my sister, Rachel Spicuglia, a five-year employee of Chili's Restaurant (owned by Brinker International), reported to her manager the escalating sexual harassment she was receiving from the cooks, which had culminated in an assault that morning in the walk-in refrigerator, the manager asked Rachel if the offending employee had gotten a "full cup" when he had grabbed her breasts. Shocked that the manager would joke in such way, Rachel protested that it wasn't funny, but he insisted that it was actually information that he needed to know.

Rachel ended up taking a leave of absence, filing EEOC Charge of Discrimination on August 12, but she continued to work with Chili's to arrange transfer to another store. The transfer was approved, but Rachel's calls to the store manager were never returned, and on December 9, Rachel received a letter from her health insurance, saying that her medical benefits were denied, due to the fact that she was terminated from her job. Two weeks before Christmas, without any warning, and still waiting for the EEOC to review her complaint. Apparently, Chili's was unable to fire Rachel during her leave of absence, but under Georgia law, unlike other states, you can suffer sexual harassment and be fired.

Rachel is 28, a musician, and a hard-working server who has worked in restaurants since she was 16 years old. She has resisted the big money to be made in higher-end restaurants, or even by taking dinner shifts at Chili's, because working the Monday through Friday day shifts have allowed her to play music at night, and to spend nights and weekends with her family.

A model employee for Chili's, Rachel has won many store competitions, getting great customer feedback, and as she has traveled and performed in several states, she has worked in Chili's in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Nevada, and Georgia. In the two years that she has been at the Kennesaw, GA restaurant, she always ranked in the top 5 servers (out of about 60), and often ranked #1. Rachel loved her job and was not only a nice person to work with, but a reliable worker. She's also someone who has tried to avoid getting anyone in trouble, even when she tore a tendon in her ankle 2 years ago and her manager simply wrapped it in a bandage and put her back on the floor.

Rachel's coworkers enjoyed working with her, as she is friendly, a great listener, and a giver of hugs. The sexual harassment started ten months prior to her EOC filing, when a cook named Juan grabbed Rachel's butt when she gave him a hug. She told him not to touch her in that way, and never hugged him again. The harassment increased and became a running joke in the kitchen, where some of the cooks would coordinate with Juan, as he would follow Rachel into the walk-in, and one of them would turn the lights off. She had reported these incidents to her manager, Kathy, who laughed it off as a harmless prank, and did nothing to stop the harassment, which had included inappropriate touching and hands shoved down her pants.

In late spring 2008, after Rachel reported the assault to her manager Bowie, he spoke to Juan (unclear whether he was given an official company warning). While the sexual harassment stopped for a brief time, the cooks began causing trouble for her in the kitchen, refusing to make her food or give her the side dishes her customers had asked for. And two weeks later, she was assaulted again, a pattern that continued until a couple months later, when Rachel's general manager, Cindy, was managing. When Rachel reported the harassment to her, Cindy offered to write Juan up. Appalled at such a minor penalty, Rachel emphasized the level of abuse, and the fact that he had been previously warned. Cindy told Rachel that Juan didn't understand English - which was not only untrue (he does speak English) but seemed to be an excuse for behavior that Rachel had made clear was unacceptable. Rachel left work that day, and through a lawyer requested a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), subsequently filing a charge of discrimination.

However, Rachel's lawyer, Steve Mixon, notes: "You can't just sue. You have to go through the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], which can take a month, or multiple months to have an investigator assign to your case." Mixon noted that it is in the interests of the employer - in this case Brinker International - to procrastinate, as many witnesses who might be willing to come forward are transient due to typical staff turnover in the service industry.

This is a direct result of the slashing of EEOC budget under the Bush Administration, which lacks the funds and staff it needs to protect women like Rachel. It has not only been under a hiring freeze since 2001, it has dramatically cut staff, most of them in enforcement. There are a mere 5 investigators covering the entire state of Georgia, as well as large portions of South Carolina. Needless to say there is a backlog of thousands of cases. Potential new cases are put off by the difficulty of filing, and often they are told to return or call back at a later time, because there is no one to do the intake.

As a Georgia resident, Rachel is fortunate that she is even eligible to file. While sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under Title VII, employees working for small businesses vulnerable in states like Georgia that have no state law to cover the gaps. "It's a systemic problem," said Mixon. "In Georgia, we do not have much enforcement in the area of sex harassment. My understanding is that in California and other states, most lawyers there don't use federal law because they are so ineffective. They use state laws instead."

Since Rachel filed her claim and took her leave of absence, the economy has gone south. She never wanted to lose her job with Chili's. Unfortunately, the corporation chose to penalize a five-year employee who prided herself in her work, in a vulnerable economic time, and without any warning. Rachel had just written a large check for medical expenses, that she now has to wait for a refund for, even as she needs to secure alternate, more expensive, heath coverage elsewhere. It's Happy Holidays from Chili's Restaurant!

*Update: Since this post was published Tuesday morning, Brinker International has contacted Rachel's lawyer, informing him that Rachel's termination was a computer error. Rachel has since been reinstated with Chili's. Check back for further updates.