AG James makes Nolita Bar Owner pay up for sexual harassment of employees 

AG James
Attorney General Leticia James is joined by survivors during during announcement of sexual harrasment and discrimination settlement with Sweet & Vicious (credit: Alex O’Connor)

New York Attorney General Letitia James Wednesday 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 and racial discrimination.

The settlement follows a 16-month investigation by James’ office that found overwhelming evidence that the owner and management of the Nolita Bar maintained a hostile work environment through pervasive sexual, racial and gender-based violence. 

“For years, women employees of Sweet & Vicious were subjected to sexual harassment by male managers. These managers commented on their bodies, clothing and appearances and made unwanted unwelcome sexual events,” said James.

James thanked the five women present at the announcement as well as the others making up the 16 who came forward and reported the abuse to the AG’s office, only after trying on multiple occasions to seek redress and protection from their employer.

“When presented with complaints about this widespread and frequent harassment and discrimination, the owner took no action. At times, he actually laughed them off, or called it a misunderstanding,” said James.

Under the settlement terms, at least 16 employees will share the money that owner Hakan Karamahmutoglu must pay in restitution. The owner must also formalize new anti-discrimination and sexual harassment training policy and report on their progress to the AG through periodic monitoring. 

Karamahmutoglu not only condoned, but actively participated in the harassment, says James, “He routinely insulted female employees calling them bitches and cows, scrutinizing their appearance, commenting on their bodies and clothing.” 

The investigation found that Karamahmutoglu also directed his managers to engage in illegal conduct and insisted hiring bartenders who are, “tall, blonde, beautiful, sexy and on another occasion instructed his and his managers to only hire and scheduled pretty girls who are lean and active,” James quoted from the settlement agreement. 

Sweet & Vicious is also liable for wage theft practices. James said employees worked over 40 hours a week but did not receive overtime pay, and their tips were regularly stolen. The OAG’s investigation showed how this intersects with the bar’s gender-biased hiring and promotion practices where only men were hired as managers and women as bartenders, often paid less than their male counterparts. 

James gave examples of workplace conditions that men were not subject to, “Women were required to work eight-hour shifts on their feet with no breaks, not even for the bathroom, and they were not permitted to have their phones or drinks during their shifts.”

Katy Guest is a former employee at Sweet & Vicious, who spoke and highlighted the disproportionate prevalence of sexual harassment in the hospitality industry – disproportionally occupied by workers who are women of color. 

“I have said before that service industry employees are treated like second class citizens. There’s often an imbalance of power that leads to systems which enable abuse. Our mental health was tested during a global pandemic that left us wounded and vulnerable. Allowing harassment and discrimination to continue is detrimental to our emotional capacity and well being,” said Guest. 

A 2021 report by the UC Berkeley Food Labor research Center found that 71% of women restaurant workers had been sexually harassed at least once. This is the most of any industry, according to the report.  

In most states, the restaurant industry is compensated through a combination of tips and hourly wages. The employer is obligated to meet the state’s minimum wage requirements, but instances of wage theft cases are often unreported and difficult to enforce especially in states that eliminated the federal sub-minimum wage which only required employers to pay a base of $2.13 to tipped workers. 

In New York, average annual wages across all industries was $88,041 in 2021, but for food services, average wages were only $49,604.

James encouraged anyone who worked at Sweet and Vicious and witnessed or experienced abuse to email their office at [email protected]. James’ message extends to any others who face harassment, discrimination, wage theft and any other unsafe conditions in their workplace.