Anonymous Hospitality Worker Complaints Highlight Need for Better Industry Practices
Only 11 days after it launched, @welp_713, an Instagram account created for Houston service workers to anonymously voice grievances, already had 1,185 followers and complaints about nine businesses — some with six or seven negative posts each. The @welp__512 Instagram account, which focuses on Austin, has a staggering 41,100 followers and received so many complaints the first two days that the moderator called a temporary halt to submissions. (There are also “welp” accounts for worker complaints about businesses in other major cities in the United States.) A disclaimer on these accounts states that posts are anonymous, unverified and not fact-checked — meaning anyone can say anything about any business without accountability or needing to prove his or her statements — and some of the claims are serious, at times even accusing business owners of illegal activity.
According to the equally anonymous moderator of the @welp_713 account, the @welp__512 account is the original and the Houston one is “in no way related other than (I’m assuming) in mission.” We asked the moderator why they started the Houston account and received this response:
“After working the past decade in different positions across multiple companies in and around the industry, I have personally been victim to a range of abuses and have heard even worse stories from friends and colleagues.
In a time when consumers want more and more transparency, it’s rational that this extends to how [business owners] treat their employees, especially during COVID when their industry is being torn apart.
My intention is not to hold a McCarthyian witch hunt, rather shine a light on those that would seek to exploit their workers for personal or company gain. It’s about bringing accountability to those who prey on often young and unaware employees. In this continually evolving medium, no one is fully aware of the lasting impacts of digital social shaming. I want to proceed with more caution but with the same mission of closure and clarity.
My only gain is in the thanks I receive from workers who feel validated to share their negligence and abuse stories, and hopefully, any accountability that comes with it.
If I ever feel that it’s in the community’s best interest to delete the account, I will.”
While the anonymity of the comments raises questions about the authenticity of the claims that are posted, the existence and immediate popularity of these social media accounts demonstrate that restaurant and bar owners still have a long way to go when it comes to handling worker complaints in a satisfactory and professional manner.
“The restaurant world seems dysfunctional when it comes to the most basic HR [human resources] issues,” said Misha Govshteyn, a technology company CEO who’s also a former food writer and outspoken industry observer. “Some of the behaviors I hear about are no longer acceptable in most corporate environments, but still happen in places where individuals have outsized power in organizations they control unilaterally.”
Restaurant and bar owners face substantial management challenges, some of which are specific to the hospitality industry. These include handling complex payroll issues and ensuring workplace safety in businesses where knives, glassware, fire and industrial-sized kitchen gear are simply tools of the trade. Ideally, educated, trained and experienced HR specialists would be on-hand to help owners with employee matters. The problem is restaurants and bars — especially small, independent ones — are historically low-margin businesses that often cannot afford professional HR help.
On the other hand, mishandling worker issues can incur costs, too — not to mention time, which owners often have precious little of to spare. Payroll errors can lead to audits by the U.S. Department of Labor Wage & Hours Division if employees file complaints. Workers who believe they were unfairly discriminated against can sue or file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Not spending the money on professional HR services means that owners might pay more later, possibly with the added embarrassments of negative publicity and reputation damage.
The lack of basic processes and personnel trained to properly handle human resource issues leaves many hospitality employees left with no recourse but to file formal complaints with government agencies. For example, in 2019 alone, 5,417 cases representing 41,103 food service employees nationwide and totaling $42,873,337 in claims were filed with the U.S. Department of Labor — more than any other industry. According to a report by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the majority of sexual harassment claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from female workers in the leisure and hospitality industries. These women account for 14 percent of all sexual harassment claims — double the rate of the general workforce. The fact that so many complaints are filed is evidence that predatory behaviors, wage theft and other employment issues are serious problems in the hospitality industry, and many employees are not able to resolve these situations directly with employers.
Why Restaurant & Bar Industry Workers Complain Anonymously
Industry workers often choose anonymity when they do complain, and the reasons are often fear-driven: fear of being “blackballed” (i.e. restaurant or bar owners collectively refusing to hire a worker who has publicly complained), fear of not being able to find another job in their line of work (which relies heavily on social connections) as well as fear of employer retaliation.
These concerns were factors in recent, high-profile sexual harassment allegations against celebrity chefs and restaurateurs. A 2018 story in The Atlantic about sexual harassment allegations against restaurateur Ken Friedman of The Spotted Pig stated, “Pushing back against harassment, even by simply reporting it, often means risking retaliation that can include lower tips or industry-wide blackballing.”
In fact, according to Eater, the four women who accused celebrity chef Mario Batali of sexual harassment “asked to remain anonymous in part for fear of retaliation — Batali, a celebrated and powerful chef, holds enormous sway in the restaurant world and beyond.”
Is it reasonable and understandable for these women to want to stay anonymous? Absolutely, and Eater accommodated their requests. Journalists, however, still have obligations to perform due diligence and ensure their reporting is factual. In this case, Eater had to accomplish this by corroborating the women’s stories with “friends, family members, or colleagues” and “publicly available information.”
Restaurant & Bar Industry Abuses Are Likely Underreported
The type of meticulous journalism needed for good investigative stories — especially if anonymous sources have to be verified as with the Batali exposé — takes time, money and highly skilled reporters. That may be why there isn’t more news about abuses in the hospitality industry. Many publications and newspapers — especially small, local ones — have struggled financially for years, and COVID-19 hasn’t helped when it comes to landing and retaining advertisers and sponsors.
For many years, the Houston Press produced a prolific number of award-winning investigative journalism articles, often taking on unpalatable topics not covered by any other local publication, including animal abuse, crime — and legal and ethical issues in the restaurant industry. As stated by writer Michael Hardy in a Texas Observer article, “The Press established a reputation for punching above its weight.” In 2016 alone, Houston Press reporters crafted nearly 20 stories that either won journalism awards or were finalists. Most of those were investigative reports. In November 2017, financially battered by Hurricane Harvey like so many other local businesses, the Houston Press laid off all its editorial staff, save for Editor-In-Chief Margaret Downing. The Houston Press still publishes news every weekday with the help of freelancers, but the lack of full-time staff has reduced how many investigative reports can be pursued. Sources who insist on being anonymous makes being able to expose illegal or unethical practices in the restaurant industry even less likely.
“Sometimes people tell us something and expect to see it in print right away, not understanding that we have to fully check out what they are saying. Proof may come in the form of documents, scientific testing (was that really red snapper that restaurant was charging for?) and countless interviews. To do anything less is to invite a lawsuit from the individuals or groups we accuse of wrongdoing,” explained Downing. “Making it more difficult is when someone tells us something but does so anonymously with little detail, thinking that somehow we have magic powers to unravel the whole mess. Especially today, with staffs a mere shadow of what they were formerly and with more limited budgets, investigative reporting has become that still highly-prized, but more rarely explored avenue of journalism.”
Indeed, this is a situation we at Houston Food Finder are also all too familiar with. We receive complaints from industry workers about unethical or illegal restaurant practices several times a year. The spread of COVID-19 among industry workers created a new set of problems and increased the volume of complaints. (It was thanks to concerns shared with us that we discovered that Houston restaurant owners have no legal obligation to report to the public when employees test positive for COVID-19.) So, no matter what, we want to continue hearing from industry workers, anonymously or not — but it’s very frustrating to constantly hear shocking accusations, yet be powerless to investigate further or have the resources needed to write a responsible and well-researched story.
Anonymous Worker Complaints or Slander? The Restaurant & Bar Owner Predicament
There is, of course, another side to the issue. The ability for users to be anonymous on social media allows businesses to be tried in the court of public opinion with unproven statements. “These Instagram accounts holding witch trials are just another manifestation of organizational dysfunction,” said Govshteyn. “The complains are anonymous and range from valid HR issues to criminality to simple cases of sour grapes. Good businesses will get burned along with bad.”
For Texas restaurant and bar owners, anonymous complaints from industry workers, whether true or false — much like “reviews” on consumer websites such as Yelp — send them scrambling to salvage the reputations of their businesses. Even those not guilty of wrongdoing may find that the anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law, signed by Governor Rick Perry in June 2011 — also known as the Texas Citizens Participation Act — makes a legal battle against public comments infeasible.
“In 2011, the Anti-SLAPP statute was passed in an effort to protect free speech activities and the rights of petition and association. In part, this new legislation sought to prevent frivolous lawsuits by companies with deeper pockets against individuals who posted negative comments or reviews on social media platforms. Specifically, the law allows a defendant to file a motion to dismiss that, in turn, requires a plaintiff to establish, by clear and specific evidence, each element of each claim asserted without the benefit of any meaningful discovery. If the plaintiff cannot meet this burden, the claims must be dismissed and the defendant can recover attorneys’ fees and sanctions. While reaction to this legislation has been mixed since it was passed, there is no question that the Anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss is a powerful tool for the ‘little guy’ who gets sued over social media posts.”
In other words, when faced with an anti-SLAPP lawsuit, a business owner has to prove that public statements about their business by current or former employees are not true in order for the suit to be dismissed and for a defamation case to proceed. Many complaints, such as racial discrimination and sexual harassment allegations, could be very difficult to disprove.
Of course, any legal action, including filing an anti-SLAPP lawsuit, costs money up front. That’s something industry workers often are ill-equipped to afford, especially during a pandemic when restaurant revenues and employee incomes are severely impacted. “The @welp_713 account exists because there is a massive disproportionate power difference between employers and workers,” says Eugene Lee, who’s worked in the Houston restaurant industry for several years. “If workers cannot bring up honest concerns without fear of retaliation, cannot afford a lawyer, cannot afford to lose their job, then anonymous reporting is their only viable means to share their stories.”
On the other hand, restaurant and bar owners are seeking ways to defend their businesses from these unproven accusations. The owners of a bar cited multiple times on the @welp_713 account — Cottonwood — are calling the posts “anonymous slander” and are looking into legal remedies. The accusations include owners ignoring claims of tip theft by managers and female employees’ complaints of sexual harassment by a former chef. A statement reads as follows:
“We are saddened that we are in a day and age that anonymous slander can be published about a local business with no burden of proof or accountability. With the current unprecedented strain on the hospitality industry, we cannot give weight to anonymous social media reports. If anyone from the anonymous account would like to reach out to us and file a private complaint, we will be happy to open a thorough investigation. In the meantime we have chosen to pass this along to our legal team for further action.”
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Over the weekend, an account created with the intention of providing workers in the hospitality industry a safe space to speak anonymously began sharing stories about restaurants across Austin, including Tatsu-Ya. With a handful of allegations raised against our restaurants, we want to make it clear that we take these matters very seriously and these allegations are not representative of our values. We are taking a deep look at how we’ve handled issues in the past. However well intentioned at the time, we know there is always room for improvement. It is our responsibility to create a safe working environment for our Tatsu-Ya family and we are reviewing all allegations with the attention they deserve to ensure our employees are put first. We want to be a place that is inclusive, encourages openness, and treats everyone equally. We love our employees and customers and value your voice. Austin is our home, this community helped get us where we are today, and we’re here to talk about anything you might have questions about.
Ramen Tatsu-ya is the subject of multiple complaints on the Austin-focused @welp___512 account. The company, which has one location in Houston, struck a conciliatory tone in response to accusations of sexism, sexual harassment and not adequately protecting employees from COVID-19, among other things. A portion of a statement posted to Instagram reads, “Over the weekend, an account created with the intention of providing workers in the hospitality industry a safe space to speak anonymously began sharing stories about restaurants across Austin, including Tatsu-Ya. With a handful of allegations raised against our restaurants, we want to make it clear that we take these matters very seriously and these allegations are not representative of our values.”
Are anonymous public complaint spaces on social media helpful to restaurant and bar industry workers and enlightening for customers — or irresponsible forums for bashing businesses? It’s potentially a mix of both, and complaints alone do not constitute solutions to the disturbing problems being voiced. However, there’s one good thing that might arise from the attention these Instagram accounts are receiving. It might spur the honest dialogs and constructive actions that will lead to secure, fair, safe and equitable bar and restaurant environments for employees.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.