Starting in January, all businesses in Illinois — including restaurants and bars — will have to provide workplace sexual harassment prevention trainings for employees. Earlier this month, lawmakers in Springfield approved Senate Bill 75 (the Sexual Harassment Victim Representation Act) which mandates businesses to offer the trainings annually. Failure could result in fines between $500 and $5,000, depending on how many are employed and if it’s a business’s first offense.
Some of Chicago’s larger restaurant companies, like Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and One Off Hospitality Group, already have trainings in place. But now the state is moving toward a standard. For example, within the first calendar week of employment, a restaurant will have to inform workers of its sexual harassment policy in writing. The policy should be made available in English and Spanish.
The policy must include a process on how workers could report any infractions. It also outlaws non-disclosure agreements that aim to quiet workers from reporting claims. If a restaurant or bar owner fails to comply, they will have 30 days to provide a fix or face fines.
“The restaurant industry, like all others, is ready to confront the challenges of sexual harassment in the workplace,” said Illinois Restaurant Association President & CEO Sam Toia.
The law requires the state department of human rights to create free trainings for workers. For restaurant and bar employees, these will be in the same spirit of BASSET or ServSafe certifications. Toia said his state organization is working with the National Restaurants Association to create the trainings.
The law was one of the topics covered last week at the first-ever Restaurant Culture Association panel. The RCA is a new organization that aims to organize restaurant and bar workers, educating them on issues including harassment in the workplace.
So far, members of the industry have applauded the law, RCA founder Trista Baker said. But it’s not perfect. For example, the bill doesn’t clearly define what constitutes as retaliation. In the bar world, an example would be giving a server a slow dining area that’s not as busy (or as lucrative) as a main dining area.
Part of last week’s discussion, which took place a Dorian’s in Wicker Park, covered what defines sexual harassment. The challenge is acknowledging different boundaries, Baker said. Older trainings, particularly some videos, use a narrow spectrum. Someone watching those trainings may think they’re not engaging in troublesome practices. For example, an innocent hug may not have sinister intentions but it still could make a worker uncomfortable. Every case is different, Baker said.
Another hole in the law falls under anonymous reporting. Workers often bite their tongues instead of sharing complaints with their managers. They’re fearful of losing their jobs. Having a system that would welcome anonymous reporting would help, Baker said.
Overall, the law is a great start, Baker said. A large restaurant owned by a big restaurant group will have different needs compared to a family-owned, neighborhood restaurant. The law does a good job of creating standards for both, Baker said. The RCA hopes to be bridge, helping restaurants owners transition while the law is implemented.
Both the IRA and RCA are making themselves available for any questions about the law. One of the biggest questions for restaurant owners may be if they should hire a human resources consultant to assist in these cases. During the RCA panel, attendees talked about how often restaurant and bar owners don’t budget for HR.