TAMPA — A former cook at a Cheesecake Factory in Brandon sued his ex-employer Tuesday, arguing several co-workers sexually harassed him for nearly a year and managers allowed the behavior to continue.
Michael Knight, 41, started work at the restaurant in November 2007 and said the harassment began soon after. He argues in a federal suit that a handful of fellow line cooks engaged in obscene antics so often that "virtually the entire work day was filled with fondling, genital-grabbing or simulated sex acts."
The allegations against the 163-restaurant chain are underscored by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In a June letter, the director of the agency's Tampa office wrote "there is reasonable cause to believe that violations of (federal employment law) have occurred." The letter said evidence showed "the sexually hostile environment was pervasive."
A phone call to the Brandon restaurant was referred to the company's headquarters near Los Angeles. Calls on Tuesday to a spokeswoman at the corporate office and the company's attorney were not returned.
When Knight told managers he was uncomfortable with the atmosphere at work, he said the behavior got worse and he was singled out for harassment. Co-workers called him over specifically to grab each other, knowing the sight would disturb him. He said he was fondled once, when a cook grabbed his nipple.
Knight said in the suit he was called a racial epithet by another cook and that later, someone put a woman's sanitary pad in a tray of meatloaf while he stepped away to help with a dinner rush.
After complaining about the work environment, he said one manager told him, "When in Rome, do as the Romans."
"It just got to the point where there's no one to turn to," Knight said in an interview.
He described a kitchen filled with immature workers and said the fondling and humping among cooks involved — all men — had become part of the culture.
The behavior stopped for about three weeks, he said, when he called a corporate hotline.
After Knight's complaint, he said a manager told him the phone call "has taken 10 years off of my life" and that if Knight had more problems, he should not call the complaint line.
Knight said his relationship with management began to deteriorate. He was written up for making a chicken wrap in eight minutes instead of seven. He was disciplined for bumping into a co-worker. He lost his job in September 2008 and later filed an EEOC complaint.
In June, the EEOC invited Knight and the company to settle the case informally. The sides also tried a separate mediation. When they could not reach an agreement at their last meeting Friday, Knight filed his lawsuit.
Knight is asking for back pay for the time he was out of work, or roughly $20,000. He is also asking for an award for the humiliation he said he suffered.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected]