Some current waitstaff at Route 9 Diner in Hadley oppose protest, say sexual harassment no longer problem



Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2014

HADLEY — Sophie Marciano, 18, says she has never been sexually harassed in her 2½ years working as a waitress at the Route 9 Diner in Hadley.

But in the last few weeks, since 10 former waitresses and one former manager described alleged sexual harassment and even assault at the diner between 2007 and 2013, she has had to spend her days reassuring people — from friends to customers who are strangers — that she and her current coworkers are not being harassed at work.

“It is an unworldly feeling to be asked if you’ve been raped or not,” Marciano said Friday. “I never imagined I’d be in that situation.”

She said she and the other waitresses are constantly explaining to customers that sexual harassment is no longer a problem at the diner because the kitchen staff members accused of the harassment no longer work there.

“I love this place. This is my family, and it’s so hard when people come in and put me in that position,” Marciano, of Amherst, said. “People say they’re angry at the owners and managers and cooks, but we’re the only ones being affected. We’re the ones who have to look customers in the eyes” when they ask about it.

People are angry at management and cooks because of the descriptions of sexual harassment and assault in newspaper interviews and in blogs posted by former waitresses. Marie Billiel posted the first blog Oct. 27, more than a year after she stopped working at the diner. She was followed on Oct. 29 by friend and former co-worker Jaime Young, and then by nine others who posted anonymously.

In those posts, and in later interviews with the Gazette, they described cooks who constantly commented on their bodies, asked for dates and sexual favors, and tried to kiss or lick them. Several said they were cornered in or dragged toward the diner’s walk-in cooler by cooks who attempted to kiss them. If they reported the alleged harassment, their harassers might have gotten a talking to, but then they would retaliate by messing up waitresses’ food orders or verbally abusing them, according to their accounts.

Word about the blog posts spread fast, and last week, an Amherst woman organized a protest at the diner Sunday that purported to be on behalf of the staff. This angered a group of 15 waitresses and one waiter, who sent statements to the Gazette.

Every person said they had never been victims of sexual harassment, although many said that they have witnessed inappropriate behavior from kitchen staff in the past. They said the problem ended roughly two years ago when owners and managers cracked down and fired some cooks. Some said that one cook who had been accused of harassment was still employed at the diner, but was fired after the blog posts.

Billiel said she disputes the timeline provided by some of the current employees and said cooks who engaged in harassment worked at the diner until recently.

Billiel said she has read online comments from current employees. “I am completely willing to believe that the diner is currently a safe place to work due to the scrutiny they are under at the moment,” she said in an email interview Friday from Israel, where she now lives. “I cannot guess how long it will last, but I am hesitant to bet it will be permanent.

“Regardless, I feel very strongly that the owners should be held accountable for the environment they bred and perpetuated for nearly a decade, even if they are finally making change,” Billiel said.

Owners’ views

Diner owners Chris Karabetsos and Archie Sideris have not confirmed that any staff have been fired as a result of harassment complaints or the recent blog posts. They have remained silent on the topic since Nov. 6, when they released a statement, promising an investigation and mandatory sexual harassment training for staff. The training took place Monday.

At the diner Thursday, Karabetsos said he would only accept questions from a reporter in writing. Questions emailed Thursday to his lawyer, David Crevier of Springfield, were not answered by Friday night.

While their bosses remain tight-lipped, waitresses reached by the Gazette this week said they wanted to speak out because the public has formed opinions about them and their workplace without seeking their input.

“I don’t need anyone to tell me what does and doesn’t happen at my work,” said Shanae Rollins, 21, of Shutesbury. Wherever she goes, she said, people assume she is victim of harassment and assault.

“It’s been pretty crazy, very annoying and frustrating,” she said. “It’s made me not want to go to school and skip classes because I don’t want people to ask me about it.”

She said that well-meaning classmates and others have brought it up, curious if she is a victim. She said she was mortified when her bus driver started talking about it in front of other passengers. “And every time I’m on Facebook, people are posting about it,” she said. “It’s everywhere. I hate it.”

Rollins said it’s been at least 1½ years since she has seen any inappropriate behavior from staff at the diner. “Because they did take steps to change it, and I’m grateful for it,” she said. She said she thinks the crackdown on harassment came about because staff were complaining to owners and managers. “It is something that should have been addressed when the people who wrote those blogs worked here.”

Some waitresses said their shifts seemed busy as usual, but others said that the public’s perception of the diner as a result of the blog posts has meant slower shifts and less of the tips they rely on.

‘Changed for better’

Morgan Lindemayer started working at the diner seven years ago when she was getting her bachelor’s degree at UMass. She said she remembers lewd jokes and other inappropriate behavior from kitchen staff, but nothing recent.

“I’ve seen things in the past but honestly, I haven’t seen anything in two years or so because those people have been fired. It’s changed a lot since then for the better — it’s not just one thing,” she said. There is one new manager, she said, and a new head waitresses. “They’re very supportive of us.”

Lindemayer clarified that the inappropriate behavior she witnessed was limited to comments. She said kitchen staff sometimes complimented her on her appearance, but no one spoke or behaved inappropriately to her.

She is not contesting what the former waitresses posted about their experiences, she said, but wants people to know that things have changed. “Not recognizing change is hurting good people,” she said. “Why force a restaurant that has changed to close?”

Lindemayer said her tips have been down on her usually busy shifts Saturday and Sunday mornings, and the atmosphere at the diner has changed. “The diner is my family and my home, and now when I go to work, I’m met with not much talking. No one is joking around. People aren’t acting like themselves,” she said.

Several waitresses said that the probing questions of customers has sent them home in tears. Nicole Phillips, 22, of Montague, said a group of regulars started questioning her about it one morning. She told them what the owners had told her to — that they had made changes and it was not a problem any longer.

“But one guy just kept pushing me about it. I ended up crying. And the manager couldn’t even give me a hug, because we’re not supposed to touch at all now,” she said. “It was a hard morning.”

Phillips said she has never been harassed by staff at the diner since she started working there three years as an undergraduate student at UMass Amherst.

She said “all the attention” the waitresses are getting from well-meaning people is exhausting. She said it has been keeping her up at night when she should be sleeping before her 6 a.m. shifts.

Sunday protest

Taylor White of Amherst said she hopes 30 people will attend the protest at the diner Sunday at noon. She deleted the Facebook page for the event after many waitresses expressed their anger about the protest on the page.

“All these people are speaking for us,” Phillips said. “We had to say, ‘we don’t want that.’”

Many of the waitstaff said they were shocked to read the blog posts of the former employees. But Joanna Ambeliotis, 19, said she was especially surprised when she learned that one of the bloggers was her older sister.

Ambeliotis said that her sister’s longtime friend Brittani Allen, who works at the diner, had called to see if she wanted a job there two months ago. She said her sister had encouraged her to take the job, saying that Allen “will take care of you.”

Ambeliotis said she was surprised that her sister would have supported her working there if she was harassed there years earlier. “I never knew she had a hard time there. She never said anything,” she said.

“I don’t know what happened then, but it’s not happening now,” Ambeliotis said. “I talked to her about it and she said, ‘I’m glad you’re having a different experience.’”

The waitresses who wrote statements or did interviews with the Gazette said they sought to support their “family” at the diner, including owners and managers, to dispel rumors that they were being harassed, and to denounce the protest planned for Sunday.

In a statement to the Gazette, waitress Brittani Allen said that the waitstaff is grateful that so many people want to support them, but boycotting the diner or protesting it will only hurt the staff. “Do not boycott the waitresses who have done nothing wrong and do not protest the owners who handled this immediately and professionally,” she said. “We are happy and safe where we work.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.


 


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