Attorney general targets alleged sexual harassment of Hadley diner employees; Route 9 business closes



Last modified: Wednesday, April 01, 2015

HADLEY — As the state attorney general filed a complaint alleging “regular and repeated sexual harassment at the Route 9 Diner, the Hadley restaurant closed its doors Monday.

The attorney general claims the diner’s owners and managers knew about but failed to protect female employees from “at least a decade of regular and repeated sexual harassment,” in violation of federal law.

The AG’s office filed a complaint Friday with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, detailing conduct that had been cited earlier by individual wait staff members. The complaint cites the alleged workplace discrimination experienced by 10 former wait staff members and hostesses.

In a statement, Attorney General Maura Healey said her office alleges that the diner allowed regular sexual harassment that created a discriminatory and hostile work environment. “No one should be degraded in the workplace because of their gender,” Healey said.

The diner did not open for business Monday. The main window of the 458 Russell St. diner, facing Route 9, was covered with paper and signs at each of the main doors, stating “Sorry the Route 9 Diner has closed. Thank you for all your support over the last 11 years.”

Co-owner Christopher Karabetsos, who was in the diner’s kitchen Monday morning, declined comment about the closing. A black pickup truck filled with items from the restaurant was backed up to the rear of the building at Campus Shopping Plaza. Karabetsos didn’t return a call seeking comment about the complaint.

The closing was announced to staff Sunday, said Sophie Marciano, a waitress at the diner for nearly three years.

Marciano said staff were told in person that Sunday would be the last day in operation, a decision she believed was sudden and was motivated based on Karabetsos and co-owner Archie Sideris, who both make their homes in Belchertown, determining the business was no longer financially sustainable.

That staff meeting was held before Monday’s announcement by the attorney general’s office that it had filed its complaint against the business, but Morgan Lindemayer, who has worked at the diner for seven years, said most employees were told the closing went beyond the financial picture.

“All of us are devastated, many tears were shed. It was a very emotional day yesterday,” Lindemayer said.

The attorney general claims that starting as early as 2004, TC LLC — which ran the diner — engaged in a steady pattern of sexual harassment and subjected female staff members to “mistreatment and humiliation in violation of federal and state anti-discrimination laws.”

In addition to Karabetsos, the defendants in the MCAD complaint are Sideris and managers Dimitrios Demos and Steven Kwak.

The complaint alleges the four men did not stop the harassment though they “had the ability to remediate it.”

Defendants in complaint

In the complaint, the attorney general’s office states that female employees were “regularly subjected to sexualized commentary, cat-calling, whistling, and unwanted touching and advances from cooks at the diner.

“The cooks allegedly grabbed waitresses’ hands or arms when they reached into the kitchen window to pick up their food orders, and cornered them in the kitchen’s walk-in refrigerator,” the complaint states.

Cooks at times turned off lights in a walk-in cooler to corner wait staff, the complaint alleges. “While on shift, the cooks also allegedly looked at and showed the waitresses pornographic images and videos on their phones.”

That conduct continued, the complaint maintains, even after wait staff members told owners and managers about it.

Last October, in online posts and in interviews with the Gazette, former waitresses described cooks who regularly commented on their bodies, asked for dates and sexual favors, and tried to kiss or lick them.

According to the attorney general’s office, wait staff members who complained to their employer about the harassment were allegedly told they could be replaced.

What’s more, some of the defendants took part in the harassment, the attorney general said. “Demos, Karabetsos and Kwak allegedly participated in the sexual harassment themselves, and regularly belittled and verbally abused waitresses at the diner.”

By contrast, male staff members received no mistreatment and were given preferential status, the complaint states.

Healey spokeswoman Cyndi Roy Gonzalez said Monday that the potential consequences for the defendants are expensive restitution and civil penalties.

She was uncertain how long it would be before any determinations are made. “We want to be as quick and as thorough as possible,” Gonzalez said.

Staff meeting

Employee Shanae Rollins of Shutesbury said Monday that she would have celebrated her third anniversary this week.

“It was out of the blue to me,” Rollins said of the closing. “We knew the owners were losing money, but we didn’t know just how bad.”

Both Marciano and Rollins said the harassment described by former employees had been corrected.

While Marciano said it was evident that patronage was down, which she attributes to comments about the harassment made by former employees, she and others did not suspect a closing was imminent.

“It’s sad that it had to get to this point, that no one would listen to our side, and now 50-plus people are left without a job,” said Marciano, observing that nearly half are people who depend on the income to support their families.

Lindemayer said many members of the staff wanted their testimony to be taken by state officials.

“What it seems to me and to other waitresses is that the attorney general is trying to make an example out of the diner,” Lindemayer said. “I don’t think it’s fair to put 50 people with families that depend on the diner out of work.”

Marciano said she will begin looking for work immediately.

“The next step for all of us is to find a new job and move on, which is sad because we love our owners and our co-workers,” Marciano said.

“They became like family to me,” Rollins said. “And now in a blink of an eye they’re not.”

Lindemayer, who recently got married, said she will try to get employment elsewhere, even though it is hard to imagine doing so.

“For me and many servers, it’s finding a whole other way of life. They may be able to take our home away, but we’ll always have our family,” Lindemayer said.

Karabetsos opened the Route 9 Diner in late 2003, several months after its abrupt closure as the Sit Down Diner, whose original owners had the prefabricated building constructed on site in 2000.

Karabetsos bought the diner from Kullman Industries of Lebanon, New Jersey, which built the diner and then took it back from original owners James and Susan Tourtillotte after they failed to make mortgage payments.

Route 9 Diner appeared to be a popular place and to have a loyal clientele until October, when Marie Billiel, a former waitress, wrote a blog post about enduring five years of sexual harassment and abuse at the diner. After she revealed the account on her “Adventures of a World-Traveling Waitress” blog, several other waitresses and a male manager also posted accounts of harassment.

This prompted Karabetsos and Sideris to hire former Hampden County assistant district attorney Elizabeth Dineen to review the allegations of sexual harassment, complete an internal review and help ensure that management identified any necessary protocols in creating a “zero tolerance environment as it relates to any workplace sexual harassment,” according to a statement they issued through their attorney, David B. Crevier of Springfield.

As with the previous closing in 2003, customers were caught off guard by the announcement.

Herbert Miller, a resident of Windfield Estates on Greenleaves Drive across Route 9 from the diner, said he learned of the closing when he was unable to get in for a meal Monday morning.

The closing disappoints him, since the 83-year-old retired engineer has been eating there since moving to the area in 2011.

“It was the first place I had breakfast” after arriving, Miller said. “The food was very good. They treated you very nicely. It was a very friendly diner.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.




 

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