New York Attorney General Letitia James today announced a settlement awarding $500,000 to more than a dozen current and former employees of Sweet and Vicious, a Manhattan bar, for sexual harassment. An investigation conducted by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that the bar and its owner, Hakan Karamahmutoglu and 5 Spring Street Corp., maintained a hostile and discriminatory workplace in which employees experienced sex discrimination, sexual and gender-based harassment, race and national origin discrimination, and wage theft. Employees were routinely subjected to inappropriate comments regarding their race, sexuality, bodies, and appearances, and suffered unwelcomed sexual advances from managers and customers. The settlement is the latest in Attorney General James’ efforts to protect workers from workplace harassment and discrimination.
“This settlement is a reminder that no matter the perpetrator, we will not tolerate sexual harassment, discrimination, or wage theft of any form in the workplace,” said Attorney General James. “For far too long, workers in the hospitality industry have been forced to weather a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and discrimination that has gone unreported. Every New Yorker should be able to go to work free from fear of abuse and degradation regardless of industry, and I pledge to continue to stand with all workers in the face of these harmful practices. I am grateful to the former and current employees of Sweet and Vicious for using their voices to fight for safe, harassment-free workplaces for all.”
The agreement is the culmination of a 16-month investigation into allegations against Karamahmutoglu and Sweet and Vicious. Documents, records, and interviews with current and former employees revealed a pervasive culture of discrimination and repeated pattern of harassment.
Karamahmutoglu routinely insulted female employees, calling them “bitches,” and “cows,” and scrutinized their appearance, commenting on their bodies and clothing. Multiple female employees were sexually harassed by male managers who made unwanted sexual advances, including an instance of an employee announcing the color of a female bartender’s underwear and saying he wanted to engage her in a sexual manner, as well as a manager repeatedly finding opportunities to rub himself up against a female employee. Several female bartenders experienced frequent harassment by violent customers who would threaten to stab, rape, and beat them.
Many employees cited race and national origin discrimination, including Karamahmutoglu calling Black employees “gangsters,” and referring to a Puerto Rican manager as a “terrorist,” and “Puerto Rican trash.” The owner and managers also frequently used anti-gay slurs.
In response to complaints from employees regarding harassment from coworkers and customers, Karamahmutoglu took insufficient action to address the behavior or prevent it from happening again — at least one employee’s report was laughed off as a “misunderstanding.”
Multiple bartenders also reported having to stand for eight hours or more without being allowed to eat or take a break, as well as a stricter code of conduct for women than for men. For example, female bartenders were not permitted to have their phones, drink, or use the bathroom during their shifts while male managers were not held to the same standards.
Several employees worked more than 40 hours a week on certain work weeks but were not compensated with overtime pay, and one employee spent approximately 30 hours completing personal work for the owner but never received compensation. Multiple employees also reported instances of tip theft when customers would leave tips on credit cards. Further, Sweet and Vicious and its owner failed to provide consistent wage notices and statements to employees.
In addition to paying $500,000 to 16 former workers, the agreement requires the revision of anti-discrimination and harassment training materials and the display and distribution of notices regarding anti-discrimination and harassment rights and responsibilities. Sweet and Vicious will also be subject to periodic monitoring and oversight, including the submission of reports to OAG to certify compliance with the settlement. The OAG encourages anyone who worked at Sweet and Vicious and witnessed or was subjected to this treatment to email [email protected].
The settlement is part of Attorney General James’ ongoing efforts to address harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Last year, Attorney General James delivered $600,000 to survivors of sexual harassment and discrimination at restaurants owned by famed chef Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich. In 2020, she secured $240,000 for 11 former employees of Kenneth Friedman-owned New York City restaurant The Spotted Pig.
“I have deeply fallen in love with the hospitality industry in New York City. There are so many amazing, inspirational people within our beloved restaurant and bar community. Many of these establishments are small businesses that bring people together and reflect the spirit of the neighborhood. However, harassment and unfair treatment are very common in the restaurant and bar industry,” said Katy Guest, a former Sweet and Vicious employee. “All employees deserve to be treated with respect, both by management and their peers. This situation is certainly not the first of its kind, nor is it the last. Not speaking up is detrimental to our mental health and emotional capacity. This is a success story that I hope will continue to inspire others to recognize their self-worth and the power of fighting for what’s right.”
“I wish I could say this was the first time I was harassed by my employer in the service industry, or even the first time I’ve received a settlement for nonpayment of wages. This case is emblematic of intersecting national problems: the subjugation of workers, and sexual harassment of women in the workplace,” said Veronica Leventhal, a former Sweet and Vicious employee. “I would encourage anyone in the service industry to consider unionizing, as it is the only way to create anything close to equitable or safe working conditions. Sweet and Vicious is not an anomaly — it is a prime example of how men with unchecked power take advantage of their employees.”
“After years of constant sexual harassment in the New York City bar scene and the normalization of mistreatment, it’s comforting to see women receiving exposure and justice,” said Lindsey Farrington, a former Sweet and Vicious employee.
“Unfortunately, harassment of bartenders, servers, and other hospitality industry workers is rampant in New York City, and most of the time our reports of such behaviors are not taken seriously by management. It is incredibly validating to have our voices heard and for justice to be pursued by the New York Attorney General’s Office. I will forever be grateful to those who helped bring these issues to light,” said Kim Anderson, a former Sweet and Vicious employee.
“I would like to thank the Attorney General’s office for the work they put into holding Sweet and Vicious accountable for the rampant discrimination and harassment they subjected their employees to over the years. I would also like to thank our team of lawyers who from the beginning believed in our case and provided us with an opportunity have our stories heard and our feelings validated,” said former Sweet and Vicious employee # 1. “In my time working at Sweet and Vicious, Hakan, his mother, and the all-male management team created an environment of distrust, surveillance, condescension, racism, and misogyny. Hakan was all too comfortable in unabashedly and frequently using racial, sexist, and homophobic slurs to refer to his employees and customers. Unfortunately, these behaviors have been normalized in the hospitality industry and I am happy to have taken part in holding Sweet and Vicious accountable. I am grateful that the many employees who suffered during their time at Sweet and Vicious have been given the opportunity to be heard, and I’m hopeful that this case will help to discourage Sweet and Vicious and other like-minded employers in the industry from subjecting future employees to the same harmful treatment.”
“The time that I spent working at Sweet and Vicious has reinforced traumas that I will undoubtedly spend years trying to overcome in therapy. It was, without a doubt, the most abusive company that I have ever had the misfortune of working for,” said former Sweet and Vicious employee # 2. “The racial, sexual and gendered humiliation and degradation that myself and my coworkers silently endured is more than anyone should ever have to experience while trying to earn a livable wage. It was and remains wildly unacceptable and the attitudes of misogyny and racism that pervade that place speak to a larger problem within the service industry at large. I will not delude myself into believing that this settlement will change the attitudes of the people in charge, but it is my hope that news of our fight will afford those that come after us the opportunity to go into these jobs with their eyes open and the wherewithal to demand humane treatment in a professional environment.”
“I’m glad that Sweet and Vicious is finally held accountable for their actions. Hospitality workers are often seen as easily replaceable which makes us easy targets for greed and abuse. Hopefully this will be a lesson to owners in the industry to treat their employees with fairness and dignity,” said former Sweet and Vicious employee # 3.
“The brave survivors and workers who came forward to report this toxicity at Sweet and Vicious are laying an incredible foundation for long lasting change — and hopefully a sign of culture change for an industry so plagued with power-based violence,” said JoEllen Chernow, Co-Director of Organizing and Solidarity Circles at Survivors Know.
This case was handled by Senior Counsel in the Civil Rights Bureau Sandra Pullman, Civil Enforcement Section Chief Fiona J. Kaye, Former Civil Enforcement Section Chief Ming-Qi Chu, and Assistant Attorney Generals Elizabeth Koo and Jessica Agarwal under the supervision of Labor Bureau Chief Karen Cacace and Deputy Bureau Chief Julie Ulmet and with assistance from Principal Accountant Judith Welsh-Liebross and Senior Accountants Darshana Kamdar and Samuel Beltran. The Social Justice Division is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Megan Faux and overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.