James secures settlement for victims of sexual harassment, discrimination and wage theft

Letitia James
In this Aug. 6, 2020 file photo, New York State Attorney General Letitia James takes a question at a news conference in New York.
Associated Press/Kathy Willens, file

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday, July 14 announced a settlement awarding $500,000 to more than a dozen current and former employees of Sweet and Vicious, a Manhattan bar, for sexual harassment.

An investigation conducted by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that the bar and its owner, Hakan Karamahmutoglu, and 5 Spring Street Corp., maintained a “hostile and discriminatory workplace in which employees experienced sex discrimination, sexual and gender-based harassment, race and national origin discrimination, and wage theft.”

The OAG found that employees were routinely subjected to inappropriate comments regarding their race, sexuality, bodies and appearances, and suffered unwelcomed sexual advances from managers and customers.

The settlement is the latest in James’ efforts to protect workers from workplace harassment and discrimination.

“This settlement is a reminder that no matter the perpetrator, we will not tolerate sexual harassment, discrimination, or wage theft of any form in the workplace,” she said. “For far too long, workers in the hospitality industry have been forced to weather a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and discrimination that has gone unreported.

“Every New Yorker should be able to go to work free from fear of abuse and degradation regardless of industry, and I pledge to continue to stand with all workers in the face of these harmful practices,” James added. “I am grateful to the former and current employees of Sweet and Vicious for using their voices to fight for safe, harassment-free workplaces for all.”

James said the agreement is the culmination of a 16-month investigation into allegations against Karamahmutoglu and Sweet and Vicious.

She said documents, records, and interviews with current and former employees revealed “a pervasive culture of discrimination and repeated pattern of harassment.”

The attorney general said Karamahmutoglu “routinely insulted female employees, calling them ‘bitches’ and ‘cows,’ and scrutinized their appearance, commenting on their bodies and clothing.

She said “multiple female employees were sexually harassed by male managers who made unwanted sexual advances, including an instance of an employee announcing the color of a female bartender’s underwear and saying he wanted to engage her in a sexual manner, as well as a manager repeatedly finding opportunities to rub himself up against a female employee.

“Several female bartenders experienced frequent harassment by violent customers who would threaten to stab, rape and beat them,” James said.

He said many employees cited race and national origin discrimination, including Karamahmutoglu calling Black employees “gangsters,” and referring to a Puerto Rican manager as a “terrorist,” and “Puerto Rican trash.”

“The owner and managers also frequently used anti-gay slurs,” James said.

In response to complaints from employees regarding harassment from coworkers and customers, she said Karamahmutoglu took insufficient action to address the behavior or prevent it from happening again.

“At least one employee’s report was laughed off as a ‘misunderstanding,’” said James, adding that multiple bartenders also reported having to stand for eight hours or more without being allowed to eat or take a break, as well as a stricter code of conduct for women than for men.

For example, she said female bartenders were not permitted to have their phones, drink or use the bathroom during their shifts, while male managers were not held to the same standards.

James said several employees worked more than 40 hours a week on certain work weeks but were not compensated with overtime pay, and that one employee spent about 30 hours completing personal work for the owner but never received compensation.

She said multiple employees also reported instances of tip theft when customers would leave tips on credit cards.

Further, James said Sweet and Vicious and its owner failed to provide consistent wage notices and statements to employees.

In addition to paying $500,000 to 16 former workers, she said the agreement requires the revision of anti-discrimination and harassment training materials, and the display and distribution of notices regarding anti-discrimination and harassment rights and responsibilities.

James said Sweet and Vicious will also be subject to periodic monitoring and oversight, including the submission of reports to OAG to certify compliance with the settlement.

The OAG encourages anyone who worked at Sweet and Vicious and witnessed or was subjected to this treatment to email [email protected].

The settlement is part of James’ ongoing efforts to address harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Last year, she delivered $600,000 to survivors of sexual harassment and discrimination at restaurants owned by famed chef Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich.

In 2020, James secured $240,000 for 11 former employees of Kenneth Friedman-owned New York City restaurant The Spotted Pig.

“I have deeply fallen in love with the hospitality industry in New York City. There are so many amazing, inspirational people within our beloved restaurant and bar community. Many of these establishments are small businesses that bring people together and reflect the spirit of the neighborhood. However, harassment and unfair treatment are very common in the restaurant and bar industry,” said Katy Guest, a former Sweet and Vicious employee.

“All employees deserve to be treated with respect, both by management and their peers,” she added. “This situation is certainly not the first of its kind, nor is it the last. Not speaking up is detrimental to our mental health and emotional capacity. This is a success story that I hope will continue to inspire others to recognize their self-worth and the power of fighting for what’s right.”

“I wish I could say this was the first time I was harassed by my employer in the service industry, or even the first time I’ve received a settlement for nonpayment of wages. This case is emblematic of intersecting national problems: the subjugation of workers, and sexual harassment of women in the workplace,” said Veronica Leventhal, a former Sweet and Vicious employee.

“I would encourage anyone in the service industry to consider unionizing, as it is the only way to create anything close to equitable or safe working conditions,” she added. “Sweet and Vicious is not an anomaly — it is a prime example of how men with unchecked power take advantage of their employees.”

“After years of constant sexual harassment in the New York City bar scene and the normalization of mistreatment, it’s comforting to see women receiving exposure and justice,” said Lindsey Farrington, a former Sweet and Vicious employee.

“Unfortunately, harassment of bartenders, servers, and other hospitality industry workers is rampant in New York City, and most of the time our reports of such behaviors are not taken seriously by management. It is incredibly validating to have our voices heard and for justice to be pursued by the New York Attorney General’s Office. I will forever be grateful to those who helped bring these issues to light,” said Kim Anderson, a former Sweet and Vicious employee.

More from Around NYC