‘Ignored, angry, helpless’: workers allege sexual harassment at US country club

<span>Photograph: Hispanolistic/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Hispanolistic/Getty Images

Sexual harassment is pervasive in the restaurant service and hospitality industries in the US and more claims of this kind are reported in the industry than any other sector of the American economy.

A 2021 survey by One Fair Wage found over 70% of female restaurant employees have been sexually harassed at least once while working in the industry, with 44% reporting they experienced sexual harassment from someone in a management or ownership role.

A May 2018 survey by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found 34% of women who formerly worked as tipped restaurant workers left their jobs due to sexual harassment they experienced in the workplace.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, worker groups and unions have been pushing for legislation to protect workers from sexual harassment on the job, including legislation at local levels to enact panic buttons for workers in the hospitality industry.

But big corporations, such as JC Resorts, have spent millions of dollars in opposition to initiatives that would require panic buttons for hospitality workers.

Restaurants from fast-food corporations such as McDonald’s to restaurants owned and operated by the celebrity chef Mario Batali have faced also high-profile lawsuits and allegations of permitting a workplace culture where sexual harassment is allowed to persist and victims are retaliated against.

Examples of abuse are common.

When four young women began working at the Los Serranos Golf Club in Chino Hills, California, a country club and two-golf course resort in one of the wealthiest suburban cities outside of Los Angeles, they immediately began experiencing sexual harassment from a senior chef at the resort. Over the course of their employment from 2021 into 2022 the harassment gradually escalated.

The club is part of the JC Resorts portfolio, a luxury resort owner and operator in southern California.

The women, Jalyn Ito, Reagan Coburn, Daniela Serna and Ariana Tan have recently filed lawsuits against the club and JC Resorts, alleging they experienced rampant sexual harassment on the job. They say that upon filing formal complaints with the human resources department, an investigation was conducted and the chef was only demoted, leaving the women forced to continue working with them while they then experienced retaliatory behavior.

Ariana Tan began working as a line cook in the kitchen of the Los Serranos Golf Club in 2021 at the age of 17. Throughout her employment, two chefs constantly made sexually inappropriate comments about her and other women working at the club while on the job.

“I felt really traumatized by this entire experience,” said Tan. “The fact that me and the other girls are so young and we’re challenging such a huge corporation should serve as a warning to employers that the younger generation is sick of being marginalized and we’re not going to put up with misogyny in the workplace.”

She described the need to hold those in charge accountable for a lack of action and to address these issues of sexual harassment in the workplace not being taken seriously by employers.

“I felt like I’m at the top of this burning building, crying for help, and no one has listened to us. I felt like we just didn’t matter to human resources, that they didn’t care about us, and feeling this sense of being worthless there,” she added. “I work there full-time, so all my bills, rent, car payments, food, all these other expenses are covered by this job. Having to be there so much, you just have to go home with this mentality of keeping your head down to keep going just to pay rent or feed yourself, and it’s been really mentally exhausting to go in and just work every single day and it’s super heartbreaking.”

In her lawsuit, Tan alleges a chef made frequent comments about her physical appearance, engaged in inappropriate touching and was made constantly uncomfortable by their behavior and commentary, from offering to bring in high heels for her to wear to physically comparing female banquet servers with another chef in a sexually explicit manner.

After human resources conducted an investigation, Tan had to continue working alongside the chef in the kitchen, where they escalated aggressive and predatory behavior toward her, including slamming pots and pans near her, finding reasons to brush up against her, and continuing to make sexually inappropriate comments within her earshot.

The three banquet servers, Jalyn Ito, Reagan Coburn and Daniela Serna, began working at the Los Serranos Golf Club in 2021, at the ages of around 19 and 20 years old. The chef immediately began fixating on them, making suggestive comments and interrogating them about their romantic lives.

“I felt extremely manipulated by my employer and my employer’s response and it made me feel extremely anxious, ignored, angry and helpless,” said Daniela Serna.

When all four women reported formal complaints to the club’s general manager and human resources, they were initially reassured the complaints were being taken seriously and action would be taken. But that did not happen.

“It felt like a betrayal. I’ve felt lost just walking into that place, remembering all the lies and memories has really hurt all of us. Every person wants to feel safe in their workplace, wants to feel heard and like they’re being cared for, and unfortunately, we feel that in our experience that just wasn’t the case here,” said Ito. “We feel distressed walking to work, looking at the managers and just feeling let down that they didn’t listen to us.”

All four women filed a charge with the California civil rights department in December 2022 and received an immediate right-to-sue letter. The women are being represented by Lauren Teukolsky of Teukolsky Law and Zoe Tucker of Unite Here Local 11, a union of service and hospitality workers that has led previous lawsuits over workplace sexual harassment against JC Resorts sites.

“We just want young women to be able to have power and feel heard, because we feel like we we weren’t heard,” said Coburn. “We want employers to know that they can’t just get away with this type of stuff.”

A spokesperson for JC Resorts said in an email: “At JC Resorts, we support our people and are invested in their workplace safety and success. JC Resorts has not received the specific lawsuits. However, we take very seriously all allegations of employee misconduct, we conduct thorough investigations and implement appropriate discipline based upon the available evidence.”