A New York City bar was ordered to pay more than $500,000 to 16 former employees after being accused of wage theft, sexual harassment, and discrimination.
During a 16-month investigation, New York’s Office of the Attorney General determined Sweet and Vicious owner Hakan Karamahmutoglu fostered a hostile work environment and that employees faced inappropriate comments about race and sexuality and were subjected to unsolicited sexual advances from managers and customers.
“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,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement. “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.”
From interviews with current and former workers, investigators discovered Karamahmutoglu allegedly described female employees as “cows” and called Black workers “gangsters” and a Puerto Rican manager “terrorist” and “Puerto Rican trash.” There was also an alleged instance in which a manager commented on the color of a female’s underwear and rubbed himself against her. Female bartenders—who claimed they were held to a much higher standard than their male co-workers—recalled occasions where unruly customers threatened to stab, rape, and beat them and having to stand for eight hours or more without eating or taking breaks. In response to these occurrences, Karamahmutoglu was said to have laughed off reported behavior as a “misunderstanding.”
A number of employees allegedly worked overtime, but weren’t paid, including one that spent 30 hours completing personal work for Karamahmutoglu. Others reported tip theft when customers left gratuities on credit cards.
“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,” Veronica Leventhal, a former Sweet and Vicious employee, said in a statement. “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.”
Karamahmutoglu said he was “deeply distressed” by the accusations and described the claims as “simply untrue, or grossly misleading.”
“I fully cooperated with the Attorney General’s investigation and I signed the settlement agreement to bring closure to this episode and to allow all parties to move on,” Karamahmutoglu said in a statement. “I’ve been a part of this community for more than 25 years. Sweet & Vicious has always strived to create a welcoming atmosphere for all of its employees, staff, vendors, and customers. We will continue to welcome everyone into a positive and inclusive environment. Those who know me will know that to be true, and I ask those who do not know me to not rush to judgment.”
Along with the financial settlement, Sweet and Vicious is required to revise anti-discrimination and harassment training materials and distribute notices of rights and responsibilities against these actions. The bar will also undergo periodic oversight, including submission of reports to prove compliance.
In July 2021, the Office of the Attorney General ordered celebrity chef Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich to pay $600,000 to at least 20 former employees for allowing a “sexualized culture of misconduct and harassment.”