Del Taco will pay more than $1 million to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. It's just the tip of the iceberg for a growing problem plaguing restaurant workers

Kate Taylor
Del Taco
Del Taco will pay $1.25 million to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

Del Taco is paying $1.25 million to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. But, fast-food workers are facing problems that are much bigger than a single chain. 

On Monday, Del Taco and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a proposed consent decree to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed two years ago in the US District Court for the Central District of California.  

The complaint included multiple examples of Del Taco employees being subjected to sexual harassment and unwelcome physical contact from male managers and coworkers. In one example, a teenage employee was told by her shift manager she had "dick-sucking lips" and that he had a dream about having sex with her and another coworker.

When workers complained, Del Taco failed to take sufficient action, according to the complaint. Instead, workers faced retaliation, including having their hours cut or being forced to resign due to continued harassment. 

In Monday's settlement, Del Taco agreed to pay $1.25 million, which the EEOC will distribute among former workers (who have remained anonymous). The settlement also requires Del Taco to revamp employees' training on their obligations and rights under Title VII, which prohibits workplace discrimination. 

Sexual harassment is a massive problem in the restaurant industry 

Mcdonalds mask coronavirus
McDonald's has faced dozens of sexual harassment complaints from workers. Noam Galai/Getty Images

Del Taco said in a statement to Business Insider that the "safety and wellbeing of our employees are always top priorities, and we take any harassment allegations very seriously."

"We fully cooperated with the EEOC throughout its investigation and the matter has been resolved. In addition, we completed an internal investigation and took appropriate measures," the statement continued. "We remain committed to providing a safe environment for all employees and customers, free from harassment of any kind."

Del Taco workers are not alone in facing sexual harassment on the job. A 2016 study found that 40% of female fast-food employees said they had been sexually harassed at work. 

In one high-profile example, McDonald's has faced dozens of sexual-harassment complaints in recent years. Last week, a former employee at McDonald's training center sued the company, saying she faced sexual harassment for years and that HR failed to take action. (McDonald's said in a statement that it "does not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any type.")

Read more: Former Hamburger University worker sues McDonald's, alleging a coworker sexually assaulted and harassed her for years

The pandemic is making problems even worse

waitress New York coronavirus
Workers say that harassment is getting worse during the pandemic. Noam Galai/Getty Images

Many restaurant workers say harassment has gotten worse during the coronavirus pandemic. A recent report found that 43% of female restaurant workers had received or witnessed unwanted sexual comments specific to COVID protocols. Roughly one in four workers said that they had experienced or noticed a significant change in the frequency of sexual harassment during the pandemic. 

"Before, these workers' dependence on customers for their income resulted in sexual harassment, sometimes including sexual assault," reads the report, conducted by nonprofit One Fair Wage and the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center.

"Now, in addition to and linked with that, these workers' reliance on customer tips has resulted in customers demanding that women risk their lives by removing their masks or coming within six feet of a maskless man," the report continues.  

Harassment more broadly is also on the rise during the pandemic. A whopping 78% of respondents said that they experienced or witnessed hostile behavior from customers in response to attempts to enforce safety protocols. The majority of respondents said that such incidents happened on a weekly basis. 

"We're asking employees to police consumers, guests, customers - making sure they're wearing their masks, making sure that they're following proper health protocols," Devita Davison, director at FoodLab Detroit, told Business Insider.

"You're going to ask a server to reprimand a customer for not wearing a mask, and that same customer is supposed to turn around and tip them?" Davison continued. "That's crazy."

If you're a restaurant worker with a story to share, email ktaylor@businessinsider.com or send a text via the Signal encrypted messenger app at (646) 768-4740.

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