Napa Valley Kitchen Worker Alleges Sexual Harassment at Bistro Don Giovanni

Posted in Breaking News,Sexual Harassment by Industry on May 10, 2018

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

A 36-year-old woman who works in the kitchen at Napa Valley’s Bistro Don Giovanni is alleging that she was harassed and assaulted by a fellow kitchen worker for months before the restaurant did anything about it, and, since the man’s firing, has been retaliated against.

Giovanni Scala, proprietor and co-founder of the restaurant, didn’t deny that the harassment occurred, but said that the business acted quickly to terminate the alleged perpetrator.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy,” Scala said Thursday. “We let him go when we first found out he was having problems in the kitchen.”

In the lawsuit filed against Napa Valley Restaurant Group, the owner of Bistro Don Giovanni, in Napa County Superior Court on April 25, the employee, Martha Patricia Venegas says that she reported the inappropriate behavior of a kitchen worker to management multiple times between November 2016 and June 2017.

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During that time, the suit alleges, the worker frequently referred to Venegas as a “f***ing lesbian,” asked her if she shaved her pubic area, commented on her breasts and buttocks, and, in general, said vulgar things to her and about her in Spanish, her primary language.

The employee assaulted Venegas, too, the suit alleges. For example, in February 2017, the employee used tongs to touch her buttocks, causing her to fall forward into another employee, the suit asserts. Venegas went to the bathroom and cried, according to the suit. She complained once again to supervisors and told them that she had reached her limit – she was going to make a police report.

The head chef, who is a relative of the employee, according to the suit, said that he would talk to the woker and told him that it was his “last chance.”

Less than a month later, Venegas was washing lettuce at the sink when the employee allegedly approached her and grabbed her butt. A nearby bartender witnessed the assault and told the worker to stop, according to the suit. Again, Venegas was back in the bathroom crying.

The employee assaulted her again in April, according to the suit, by coming up to her, commenting on and then squeezing her breasts.

Venegas signed multiple forms after making her complaints, but when she asked to see a copy of one of her complaints and any related reports, a supervisor said he wasn’t sure if he could give them to her, the suit alleges.

According to the suit, the kitchen worker harassed other women at the restaurant and repeatedly showed up for work intoxicated.

The employee was finally terminated in June, according to the suit, after other employees complained about his behavior.

But Venegas’ torment wasn’t over, according to the suit. the employee left, but his friends in the kitchen continued to treat Venegas poorly, upset that he was gone, alleges the suit. One man, the suit alleges, told the women in the kitchen, including Venegas, to leave because he didn’t want any sexual harassment.

The suit alleges that, in the following months, Venegas’ hours were reduced, her scheduling became inconsistent, changing at the last minute, and that her time card was altered.

The “oppressive, hostile, intimidating” work environment caused Venegas stress, interfering with her well-being and her ability to perform her job, according to the suit.

“I work really hard to do my job, and didn’t deserve to be treated like this,” Venegas said (in Spanish) through her attorney, Alexis McKenna of Winer, McKenna, Burritt & Tillis LLP in Oakland. “This has caused me a lot of stress and worry. I want to be respected as a worker and have my workspace respected. It’s my right to have a safe workspace and I haven’t felt safe.”

McKenna said that this type of harassment at restaurants, especially in the back of the house, or the kitchen, isn’t unusual.

“The restaurant industry tends to be rampant with these kinds of issues,” she said. Contributing factors, she said, include insufficient training, a high turnover rate, poor supervision and the sheer number of employees.

“It seems like it tends to get worse in the back of the house where there aren’t customers who would see things,” McKenna said.

In this case, she said, although the employee was fired, he wasn’t fired soon enough.

“They should have fired him when she first made a complaint about it or when they became aware of it,” McKenna said. The behaviors were happening in plain sight, but Venegas still had to complain several times over a long period of time before the problem was adequately addressed.

“Several other women had to complain before they finally fired him,” she said. Venegas, who McKenna says still works at the restaurant, continues to be retaliated against for speaking out against the worker’s alleged behavior.

When asked about the alleged retaliation, Giovanni Scala said again that the restaurant has “zero tolerance” for things like that.

A case management conference is scheduled for Oct. 2.