While women working in entertainment, media and government careers are drawing attention to sexual harassment in the workplace, employees who delivered pancakes at two metro-east restaurants said they were subjected to groping, grabbing and the fear of sexual assault on the job by co-workers.
Eleven women and one man who worked as servers filed suit in federal court against the International House of Pancakes and the owners and at least four of the employees of their franchise restaurants in Glen Carbon and Alton.
“They would follow us into the walk-in (cooler) when we went in there to get some produce to stock and they would pin us against the wall and touch us. It was really scary,” said a 26-year-old woman who worked as a server at the IHOP in Glen Carbon.
Two cooks at the restaurant, Ernesto Xivir, also known as Garrison, and Humberto Cudeno, and managers Judy Lepping and Nader Awwad were named individually in the lawsuit, along with the owners of the local franchise, Rami Ramadan, Bassam Ramadan and Khalid Ramadan.
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Neither the IHOP corporate office nor the attorneys for the Ramadans returned calls for comment.
Three woman interviewed Friday said cooks and managers at the Glen Carbon restaurant sexually harassed them, called them derogatory names and berated them. They said their complaints to the managers, owner and corporate headquarters went unanswered.
“I needed the job. I just had a baby and was living on my own. I was a single mother,” said the 26-year-old who has worked at the restaurant since March 2011.
Another former server said the harassment from the cooks was constant.
"Garrison (the cook) repeatedly tried to go into the cooler with the waitresses. Because of Garrison's conduct, waitresses altered their behavior and started going into the cooler in couples to protect themselves," the complaint stated.
“You couldn’t bend over to pick something up off the floor or they would grab you by the waist” and simulate a sex act, said another server, a 32-year-old single mother.
Judy Lepping, one of the female managers, told the servers to “let it go” and “that’s just how they play.”
The 54-year-old server and part-time manager stated Lepping, the female manager at the restaurant, told her to "suck it up" and that if she allowed Garrison to grab her buttocks, they would work good for her, the complaint stated.
“I went to the other manager and I told him that he was going to get himself in trouble and I wasn’t going to be a part of it,” the woman said.
When one server contacted IHOP corporate headquarters and complained about the sexual harassment, she was fired, the complaint stated. Lepping instructed her supervisor to write bad things about her attendance to justify her firing. When the woman refused, the complaint said she was demoted and Lepping told her "if she wasn't going to have their back, they weren't going to have hers."
“I couldn’t sit there and watch this happen to these girls,” she said.
Parents of teenage girls who were working at the restaurant came to complain to the owners, but the woman said nothing was done.
The 32-year-old server said finally the waitresses began talking to one another and writing down instances of the harassment and a complaint was made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who handles complaints of sexual harassment.
All three of the servers said they went to work every day frightened, both of being berated and groped but also of being sexually assaulted.
“You just didn’t know what was going to happen next,” the 26-year-old said.
When the waitresses complained about the behavior, the lawsuit said they were further targeted with unwelcome touching.
"After (a waitress) complained about Garrison to (manager) Rami Ramadan, Rami Ramadan began harassing her because of her gender, slapping her on her buttocks when she walked past him," the lawsuit said.
When the waitress asked him to stop, Rami Ramidan would laugh and say he was "just playing," according to the complaint.
While all three no longer work for the restaurant, they said they still suffer from that fear and stress of working in what they called a hostile work environment.
The EEOC filed suit in September. Josh Evans, of the Unsell Law Firm in East Alton, joined the suit on behalf of a dozen of the servers and filed a complaint in February.
“These women were grabbed, groped and grinded on,” Evans said. “These women were working for tips, trying to support children and babies. This was a level of wrong that I could not get my mind around.”
A survey released last month found that 81 percent of woman said they had been sexually harassed, with 51 percent reporting they had been sexually touched and 27 percent stating they had been sexually assaulted. Of those taking the survey, 31 percent said they reported being depressed or anxious after the harassment.
The complaint stated the Khalid, Rami and Bassam Ramadan "assisted in the acts of sexual violence, by failing to intervene and stop said acts, refusing to discipline those committing said acts and fostering an environment where (the servers) could be victimized."
“The people in charge of this restaurant created a culture of intimidation by allowing the sexual harassment of their female employees,” Evans said. “This is the kind of conduct we intend to stop.”
The Ramadans, through their corporations, own IHOP restaurants in Alton; O'Fallon, Illinois; Decatur; Kansas City, Missouri; O'Fallon, Missouri; St. Peters, Missouri and Wentzville, Missouri.
The case is now pending in federal court in East St. Louis. U.S. District Judge David Herndon is presiding. A trial is set for summer 2019.
The case is scheduled to be featured on the ABC television news magazine show "20/20" on Friday.