CHICAGO — One woman recalls how a general manager at a Chicago-area restaurant where she worked told her that if security cameras recorded him reaching between her legs and grabbing her genitals, he could simply "edit that out."
Another woman worked at an Atlanta restaurant and says her boss did nothing when two dishwashers kept making vulgar comments, so she quit wearing makeup to look less attractive and hopefully end the verbal abuse.
In the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against several prominent men in entertainment, politics and journalism, accounts like the ones these women share quietly play out in restaurants, bars and hotels across the country and rarely get the headlines.
Court documents and interviews with the women and experts on the topic show hospitality industry workers are routinely subjected to sexual abuse and harassment from bosses, co-workers and customers that are largely unchecked. The nature of the work, which often has employees relying on tips, can make them especially vulnerable to abuse.
"I was absolutely humiliated," said Sharonda Fields, who said the abuse at the Atlanta restaurant began shortly after she started working there last year. "It was degrading. I felt embarrassed. I felt low. I just felt like nothing happened when those guys talked to me that way, and especially when the staff and the managers knew what was going on. It made me feel like dirt."
She filed a lawsuit against the restaurant last spring. Calls to the restaurant from The Associated Press went unanswered.
Joyce Smithey, an Annapolis, Maryland, attorney who has handled several sexual harassment lawsuits, said those accused of misconduct "have a great sense of who the victims are, who the women are who will put up with this, who need the job, are so scared they don't fight back."
That's especially true in an industry where immigrants are a large part of the workforce. In a 2014 federal lawsuit in New York that was ultimately settled, a woman alleged that the general manager of a fast-food restaurant where she worked asked about her immigration status regularly and knew that she was "even more vulnerable" partly because she had no family in the United States.
Many accusers think fighting back is futile. According to a survey in Chicago, not only had 49 percent of hotel workers reported incidents in which guests "exposed themselves, flashed them or answered the door naked," but just 1 in 3 of the workers who had such experiences reported it to a boss.
Sarah Lyons, a research analyst with UNITE HERE Local 1, the union that conducted the survey last year and represents more than 15,000 hospitality workers in the Chicago area and northwestern Indiana, said the most common reason these workers didn't come forward is because they knew someone who tried to report sexual misconduct and nothing changed as a result.
Often things can get worse for those who report misconduct. Attorneys and advocates for workers say waitresses who speak out risk facing retaliation: Their shifts can be taken away or they might be scheduled for slower business times when there are fewer opportunities to receive tips.
In a 2011 lawsuit against a Maryland yacht club, Victoria Tillbery reported that a boss had told her she would "never have to worry about your shifts" if she let him perform oral sex on her. She refused and after she reported her allegations to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, her job started making her do her prep duties during shifts and not before them. That took her away from waiting tables and earning tips.