Route 9 Diner’s response to sexual harassment allegations met with skepticism by former employees

By Aviva Luttrell

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Photo by Cade Belisle/Collegian

Cade Belisle/Collegian

Updated: 7:02 p.m.

The Route 9 Diner in Hadley has responded to a series of allegations of sexual harassment made by former employees, announcing it will conduct an internal review and hold periodical sexual harassment awareness training, according to a prepared statement by owners Chris Karabetsos and Archie Sideris.

The promise comes after 11 former employees came forward on online blogging platforms, including WordPress and Tumblr, to recount stories of alleged sexual harassment at the hands of Route 9 kitchen staff.

Marie Billiel, now 25, was the first to share her story on her blog, “Adventures of a World-Traveling Waitress.” She said that from 2008 to 2013 she worked at Route 9, and was sexually harassed “on a near-daily basis.” On one occasion, she wrote that she was dragged into the walk-in cooler by a cook who was trying to kiss her. Another time, a different cook kissed her on the neck without her consent.

In a Skype interview with the Collegian from Tel Aviv, where she is currently living, Billiel said she and other employees informed Route 9 managers and owners on several occasions, but no significant changes were made, and the harassment continued.

“Part of my assimilation into life at the diner had been realizing and accepting that things like being trapped in the walk-in sometimes just happen,” Billiel wrote on her blog.

Billiel’s blog post inspired others to share their experiences, including former Route 9 waitress and UMass grad Jaime Young, who worked at the diner from August 2012 to May 2013.

“It was something that we all talked about doing sometime,” Young told the Collegian. “I figured my voice would only make Marie’s stronger and inspire others to come forward.”

On her blog, Young detailed the harassment she experienced, including being cornered and forcibly kissed on the neck by cooks several times. She wrote that the kitchen staff would not give her her tables’ food until she showed them her tongue and would purposely mess up her orders after she complained to the management.

Still, she said nothing was done.

“If there’s one thing the owners made clear, it was that all waitresses were expendable. And to an extent they’re completely right,” Young wrote. “It’s much easier in Amherst to find a naive 19 year old willing to work under disgusting circumstances than it is to find a replacement for a cook who knows the ins and outs of the menu and is willing to work in a gruelingly hot environment for $6-10/hour, for 10-18 hours a day, six days a week.”

According to the diner’s statement, released by its attorney last week, Route 9 has never had a sexual harassment suit filed, a sexual harassment complaint settled out of court or a complaint made to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in the 11 years it’s been open.

The diner’s internal review, according to the statement, will be conducted by former Hampden County Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dineen to “help ensure that management identifies any necessary protocols in creating a zero tolerance environment as it relates to any workplace sexual harassment.”

Photo by Cade Belisle

Cade Belisle/Collegian

Periodical sexual harassment awareness training for all employees and additional training of management personnel will be led by a trainer who attended the MCAD sexual harassment training program “to ensure that they identify and properly respond to any sexual harassment of which they become aware of which is brought to their attention,” the statement said.

According to a sign on the diner’s door, the restaurant will be closed Monday from 2:30 to 6 p.m. for staff training.

However, neither Billiel nor Young believe the actions promised by the diner are sufficient.

“It is the consensus among us that that is not going to do anything because the problem is much deeper than a couple people misbehaving,” Billiel said.

“It’s not people not knowing their boundaries, it’s people not caring,” Young added. “Right then and there was me hearing (the owners) say, we never listened to you before, but look we just did it.”

In a statement on its Facebook page, which has since been disabled, the diner said it had also fired one employee accused of harassment.

Young said this is not the first time that particular employee has been fired.

Young and Billiel both also recalled another employee who had been fired at least twice and rehired, and according to Young, a cook that corned her in the walk-in cooler was also fired and rehired.

“They basically just put them in timeout for a week,” she said. “They do all these action things to make a statement.”

Follow-up blog posts by other former Route 9 staff described more alleged problems at the diner, including employees being forced to work when ill, poor food safety and waitstaff being forced to pay for walkouts, which is illegal.

“We all knew it wasn’t legal, but when you’re constantly told how expendable you are, you just take it on the chin,” Young said. “The constant fear of messing up … I was walking on eggshells at all times.”

A Facebook event, titled, “PROTEST AT THE ROUTE 9 DINER!,” is scheduled by the public for Nov. 16 at 12 p.m. According to the event, customers will help employees demand fairer hours and pay, new management practices, increased security and consequences for breaking sexual harassment policies. Donations will be collected to distribute as tips for waitresses working during the protest.

However, many current Route 9 employees feel the issue is overblown.

“The employees of the Route 9 diner will not be demanding fairer hours, pay or new management practices,” said Sophia Marciano, who has been working at the diner for nearly four years, in an email Sunday night. “Neither will we be demanding security or consequences for sexual harassment that we have NEVER been exposed to. And most of all, we do not support the claims of our former co-workers and we do not support the ‘supporters’ of ourselves.”

Aviva Luttrell can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @AvivaLuttrell.

Correction: A previous version of this story implied the Route 9 Diner employees were organizing the Nov. 16 protest. It has since been corrected above.