A group of current and former restaurant servers at Vancouver’s historic Rosewood Hotel Georgia are filing a formal human rights complaint for sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.
The complaint, which was shared with HuffPost Canada, is set to be filed at the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal early next week. It was submitted by former Rosewood Hotel Georgia restaurant and bar staff Casey Vanderveen, Jesse Perry Huson, Sierra Garrison and a fourth woman, who the union representing the women would not identify at her request.
The women describe “egregious and repeated sexual assaults and harassment at the hands of hotel guests” and allege the hotel’s management has perpetuated an overly sexualized work environment, contributed to lewd comments about female workers and failed to respond appropriately when they reported incidents of sexual assault.
The women say the human rights complaint is a way to acknowledge the gender discrimination, harassment and assault.
“As women, we need to come together and speak our truth,” Huson told HuffPost. “And we’re hoping this brings about some change as to what’s condoned in the industry and what creates a safe work environment for women.”
In the complaint, the women ask the hotel to recognize its violations, create procedures to investigate and respond to sexual harassment complaints and to have management undergo sexual harassment training. They are also seeking damages for injury to their dignities and compensation for wages and benefits lost as a result of the harassment and assault they experienced.
The Rosewood Hotel Georgia provided HuffPost Canada with the following emailed statement on the matter:
“We maintain a zero-tolerance policy for harassment or discriminatory practices in any capacity. We continue to remain committed to providing a safe and fair work environment for all employees.”
An unsafe work environment
Originally built in 1927, the Rosewood Hotel Georgia has hosted a wide variety of celebrities and dignitaries over the years including Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole and Queen Elizabeth.
The hotel was recently named the number one hotel in Canada, according to U.S. News and World Report. It said “recent visitors said the staff’s attention to detail makes guests feel like royalty.”
That description is in sharp contrast to the complaint, where the women named in the complaint describe a “hostile” and “sexually explicit” work environment at the high-end hotel. They also say they received little support from management when they brought complaints forward.
“In the hospitality industry, you obviously want to cater to clientele’s needs, but not when it’s in exchange of the safety of the people working there,” Huson said.
WATCH: Women overwhelm Twitter to share stories of 1st sexual assault. Story continues below.
The three worked in various dining spaces at the hotel, including the Prohibition lounge, an upscale 1920s-themed cocktail space, and Reflections, an outdoor terrace restaurant.
Huson describes repeated incidents of wealthy customers grabbing her and other servers.
“I went over to the table and [a customer] put his hand up my skirt and held on my inner thigh and wouldn’t let me go — it was humiliating,” Huson told HuffPost. “And when I went to management immediately after to express that I felt, like, socially violated, they told me to continue serving the table.”
“There are giant groups of corporate men who come in after work and think they can grab and touch and kick and laugh with a server and then go home with their wives.”
Huson said when she asked to switch tables with another server, the manager on duty told her it would be too embarrassing for the guest. Garrison described similar experiences.
“There are giant groups of corporate men who come in after work and think they can grab and touch and kick and laugh with a server and then go home with their wives,” Garrison told HuffPost.
In the human rights complaint, Garrison, who identifies as queer, also described several incidents of current and former management commenting on her sexual identity, including insinuating that she and other female servers would kiss while alone and one saying “I don’t understand why you can’t try again with men. Maybe you didn’t get it right the first time.”
Garrison also described incidents of customers asking her for pictures of her girlfriend, and trying to show her naked pictures of their wives and girlfriends.
Vanderveen said the “breaking point” for her came in December 2018, when a VIP customer grabbed her.
“He was trying to give me a kiss on the lips and saying really gross stuff,” she told HuffPost. “I struggled to get away and eventually at one point I turned my head away from his face so he couldn’t kiss me and he bit me, like chomped me, on the neck.”
She said the manager on duty that day did nothing to address the situation when she brought it up, claiming that they had “bigger fires to put out.” Vanderveen said she left the incident feeling like she had to do something to change.
“I was treated like I was disposable, and I realized this was bigger than me and bigger than this job,” she said. “So I decided to go to the union.”
Organizing a movement
Employees at Rosewood Hotel Georgia have been part of UNITE HERE Local 40, a service and hospitality union, since 2011. Vanderveen said they helped her come forward with her story, and eventually take the step to file the human rights complaint.
“We feel [Hotel Georgia and its owners are] contributing to a culture of abuse and in my opinion they’re putting profit and guest satisfaction over the safety of their employees,” Sharan Pawa, a communications officer with UNITE HERE, told HuffPost. “No business should do that, which is why the women are filing a human rights complaint.”
Last month, the union hosted a rally outside the hotel and called on the City of Vancouver to address harassment in the hotel and restaurant industry. Vancouver city councillors Christine Boyle and Jean Swanson put forward a motion to city council to address the issue and potentially implement law around sexual assault training in service-industry workplaces.
The motion passed unanimously on July 24 and will be addressed later this fall.
Following the rally, the Rosewood Hotel Georgia said in a statement they were seeking an apology from the union, alleging it had damaged its reputation.
A shifting industry
The movement to address assault and harassment in the hospitality and service industry comes on the heels of the broader #MeToo movement, as more and more women and others are feeling empowered to come forward with their stories. It also comes following shifts in regulations around the hospitality sector in B.C., including a ban on mandatory high heels in the workplace and new regulations that prevent employers from keeping employees tips.
All three women have left the Rosewood Hotel Georgia since coming forward with their complaints.
After taking several months off of work to seek counselling and therapy after her experiences, Vanderveen said she tried to go back to work at the hotel by “just couldn’t do it.”
Huson left the hotel and now works on the Sunshine Coast.
Garrison, while still technically on the casual list at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, works full-time managing another restaurant.
All three said that while they’ve had better experiences in other workplaces, they know harassment and assault happens across the service industry and hope their case sets a precedent.
“Hotel Georgia is the number one hotel in Canada and we were sexualized and assaulted and there was nothing done about it,” Huson said.
Garrison said the human rights complaint is important, because it is a step towards making the industry as a whole better.
“My reason for speaking out about it now is to give a voice to those people who are still in it and dealing with every day,” she said.
Vanderveen said coming forward and talking about the assault she experienced was “one of the hardest things” she’s ever had to do.
“It definitely left some scars. But if I can help someone [it’s worth it],” she said. “No one deserves to be treated like this.”
If the complaint is not immediately resolved or dismissed, it will be brought before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal in a hearing.