When Erin Wilson, a waitress at a small Greek restaurant in the Virginia Suburbs, began to show the unmistakable signs of pregnancy, her boss told her it was time to leave work, go home and have her baby. He fired her.
Humiliated and feeling she had no recourse but to try to find a new job, Wilson, then 5 1/2 months pregnant, went home unaware that she could take legal action against her employer for sexual discrimination.
"He, in his little mind, thought he was being very paternal," she says of the supervisor who fired her on that day two years ago, when she needed money and was given three days' notice.
Wilson said she would have done nothing if a disgusted friend had not advised her to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She eventually won compensation for the wages she lost while she was out of work. The settlement with the restaurant prohibits her from disclosing its name.
"I was as healthy as a horse, and my doctor wanted me to work," Wilson, a waitress for 10 years, said. Saturday, she was a member of a panel of waitresses who discussed their personal battles with employment discrimination as part of a forum on "The Rights of Waitresses and Other Restaurant Workers," sponsored by the Women's Legal Defense Fund, the Women's Rights Clinic of Antioch Law School and the YWCA.
The forum was the first of its kind in the area to focus on women in the restaurant business. They comprise 90 percent of the 1.5 million people nationwide who wait on tables, yet they are relegated to the lowest-paying shifts and grossly misrepresented on managerial levels.
Professional waitresses have been left behind in the women's rights movement. Because of fear, ignorance of the law or acceptance of an outdated double standard, many acts of discrimination go unchallenged. The more exclusive restaurants may hire only men; others who cater to a white clientele might perfer white waitresses, sexual involvement may be an unwritten clause in the job description.
"The restaurant industry in this town is in serious trouble," said Anita B. Shelton, director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights and the forum's keynote speaker.
"There ae 1,700 licensed eating establishments in D.C., and for the most part they go without review by me or the unions," she said. "We have been given good laws, which apparently is not enough, because the restaurants are still denying our rights."
Shelton's office has singled out the restaurant business in Washington as one of the most flagrant abusers of employes' civil rights. In cooperation with the D.C. Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control, questionaires will be sent within a month to many of Washington's eating and drinking establishments. The random survey is designed to determine the racial and sexual composition of restaurant personnel, and to identify potential trouble areas.
An estimated 60 to 70 percent of all restaurant management positions are held by white males, she said, even though the city's population is 76 percent black. John Watkins, executive assistant director of the human rights office, said despite D.C's high rate of unemployment -- 23,400 people are out of work, 83 percent are black and 50 percent are women -- opportunities are being denied to low-skilled workers at the entry level. The Office of Human Rights received only 61 discrimination complaints about the restaurant business last year.
One reason is a lack of knowledge about where to go, or even how to identify a job-related incident as discriminatory. "Discrimination in restaurant hiring practices has never been a specific issue before," said Lauren Taylor, a community educator with the Women's Legal Defense Fund whose office has received many calls from waitresses complaining of sexual discrimination.
To the 30 service workers who participated in the forum, however, discrimination on the job was nothing new. Each said that at least once during her career she had been sexually harassed or denied work on the basis of race of sex.
One member of the panel Michele Conner, 22, a tall, attractive blond, described how her appearance had caused her to lose more than one job. In one incident, she said, her supervisor asked her to come to his upstairs office to pick up her paycheck. There he cornered her and tried to touch her, and she slapped his face.
"If you don't play the game you don't have the job," she quotes him as saying. "I didn't know where to go or who would help me." She quit.
Fear of retaliation is another reason people do not complain. Shelton says she has filed a complaint against four leading D.C. restaurants on behalf of employes who feared repercussions.
For example, panelist Desrine Rainford said a manager of an expensive downtown hotel warned her not to call in sick or arrive late for work, after she complained to the Hotel and Restaurant Employes Union (Local 25) that she was not being allowed to work in the night lounge, where tips are higher, because she is black. A waitress for seven years, she had worked there 2 1/2, serving breakfast and lunch, where tips are smaller.
Rainford's case was resolved with the help of the union under contract with the hotel. She was serving drinks in the night lounge within six months.
Only 5 percent of all restaurant workers in the District are under union contract, Ron Richardson of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, said. People are reluctant to organize because "tips are good and (they) are afraid to lose their jobs."