For two months Jennifer Denham and Linda Retchin donned short black shorts and white blouses with puffed sleeves to wait on tables at a Bethesda rib house. But after suffering harassment from customers, they say, they put on black trousers like their male counterparts.
Last Thursday night, Retchin lost her job because, she says, she refused to go back to shorts. Denham lost her job on Tuesday night for the same reason, she says.
John Carne, their boss at Tony Roma, a restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, says both were excellent employes but "resigned," as he puts it, over the shorts issue.
"It's just demeaning to be out there in shorts," said Denham, 26, who is now unemployed. "You are on display almost . . . . You are in shorts so people could see your legs, and for no other reason."
Retchin, 30, who is working as a dental hygenist, said she stopped wearing the shorts because they were impractical and led to comments from customers. "I just came to my senses," she said. She no longer wanted to be "harassed by customers telling you what beautiful legs you have. I can live without that."
Norman Hill, a vice president of the Dallas-based chain of 40 rib restaurants, said the shorts were designed to replace much shorter skirts worn in some of the older restaurants. "It's a more conservative uniform," he said. " . . . I thought they were pretty nice looking."
Carne said that Denham and Retchin knew they would have to wear shorts when they took jobs after the Bethesda restaurant opened last Feb. 23. "If they thought it was sex discrimination, they didn't have to take the job in the first place," he said.
Carne says he sees nothing sexist in the restaurant's dress code: "They're very comfortable." The remaining nine waitresses are perfectly content to wear the shorts, Carne said. "There is no dissension," he said.
Both women, however, say there is dissension among the waitresses, but that other employes are anxious to keep their jobs and accompanying benefits. They say they have taken their case to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission.
At the Human Relations Commission, Compliance Director Michael F. Dennis said he was forbidden from discussing specific cases. But "the question has come up before" during cases unrelated to this one, he said. Those cases, he said, have been resolved without going to court, and employers in some cases have agreed to change the uniform.
It is not illegal for an employer to require different uniforms for male and female employes, according to Dennis, though courts generally have ruled it illegal under federal law to make employes wear uniforms that expose them to sexual harassment they would not normally receive.
Hill, the corporation vice president, says the company doesn't believe it is guilty of sex discrimination. "We haven't got any other employe complaints about the uniforms because we don't try to fool them about it," he said. "We bring them in for their training programs and say: 'This is the uniform we wear here -- any problems or concerns?' "
Retchin, however, feels differently: "It's definitely a case of sex discrimination. Men do not have to wear them."