Stella’s un­der fire

Past, present em­ploy­ees claim Win­nipeg chain work­place rife with ha­rass­ment

Winnipeg Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - JEN ZORATTI

More than 20 women who have worked at the Win­nipeg restau­rant chain have come for­ward with al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and work­place labour vi­o­la­tions

STELLA’S, a Win­nipeg restau­rant chain as­so­ci­ated with all things whole­some and home­spun, is at the cen­tre of a flurry of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and un­fair labour prac­tice al­le­ga­tions.

The Free Press has been con­tacted by more than 20 for­mer and cur­rent Stella’s em­ploy­ees from all seven Win­nipeg lo­ca­tions, al­leg­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment, un­wanted touch­ing, ver­bal abuse, lewd kitchen con­duct, un­fair labour prac­tices and, in one case, a sex­ual as­sault that oc­curred on the job.

Since Thurs­day, an In­sta­gram ac­count called @not­mys­tel­las has been steadily doc­u­ment­ing sim­i­lar al­le­ga­tions.

The ac­count paints a pic­ture of a deeply toxic work en­vi­ron­ment: ha­rass­ment, ver­bal abuse, racism, trans­pho­bia, un­safe work con­di­tions, and preg­nancy dis­crim­i­na­tion are among the com­plaints. By mid-af­ter­noon Fri­day, it had al­most 5,000 fol­low­ers and nearly 200 posts.

For­mer Stella’s em­ployee Christina Ha­j­jar, who be­gan post­ing her own and oth­ers’ ex­pe­ri­ences to her per­sonal In­sta­gram be­fore cre­at­ing @not­mys­tel­las, said she has re­ceived hun­dreds of mes­sages from past and present em­ploy­ees.

“I got way too many mes­sages to han­dle,” she said Fri­day. “We have over 100 un­read mes­sages. There are more ex­pe­ri­ences we’re not shar­ing out of fear of re­tal­i­a­tion.

“A lot of peo­ple who have mes­saged me are cur­rently em­ployed and are hav­ing a bad time.”

Stella’s own­ers Tore Sohlberg and Lehla Abreder re­leased a lengthy state­ment Fri­day af­ter­noon.

“We have en­gaged Peo­ple First HR Con­sul­tants... to re­view all of our poli­cies and pro­ce­dures on work­place safety and ha­rass­ment and to make rec­om­men­da­tions to help us con­tin­u­ously im­prove,” the state­ment read, in part. “Ha­rass­ment in any form — whether sex­ual, phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal or oth­er­wise — is not and will not be tol­er­ated within the Stella’s fam­ily.”

How­ever, that’s not the ex­pe­ri­ence re­ported by sev­eral em­ploy­ees.

One fe­male server, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied, said she was ha­rassed and as­saulted by a male server dur­ing a shift in Septem­ber.

“The per­pe­tra­tor re­peat­edly made very in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ments to me and at­tempted to touch me in­ap­pro­pri­ately,” she told the Free Press. “He would rub his groin against my back­side ev­ery time he would walk by me. I felt pretty shocked and un­sure of what to do.

“There were times I told him to stop, and it just kept go­ing and go­ing.”

She said de­spite speak­ing to a sup­port­ive man­ager, “it just never seemed like there was any con­cern (from head of­fice) for what hap­pened to me.”

When she gave no­tice two weeks later, she filed an in­ci­dent re­port, and said she was told it would be sent to head of­fice. “When I called head of­fice, there was a recorded voice mes­sage with op­tions and one of them was for HR. When I clicked the num­ber for HR, I was pretty sur­prised it went right to the CEO’s (Grant An­der­son) phone line.”

An­der­son asked her about the day of the al­leged as­sault, and if she did any­thing dif­fer­ent, be­cause “peo­ple don’t just do that,” she said, adding he also rep­ri­manded her for not fil­ing an in­ci­dent re­port sooner.

“I was in tears,” she said, adding she con­tacted po­lice who looked into the in­ci­dent, but no charges were filed.

When reached for com­ment, An­der­son said he would never say it wasn’t pru­dent to come for­ward. “By the time I ac­tu­ally spoke to (the server), she had al­ready left the com­pany. She would not have been an em­ployee at that time.”

The male server, mean­while, was re­port­edly trans­ferred to a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion. “I be­lieve he also re­ceived a pro­mo­tion,” the woman said.

Kelsey Wade, 22, worked at Stella’s for al­most three years as a server and su­per­vi­sor.

She said Stella’s dis­trib­uted a ques­tion­naire to em­ploy­ees fol­low­ing the Septem­ber in­ci­dent, ask­ing for state­ments re­gard­ing the evening dur­ing which the al­leged as­sault took place. One ques­tion asked to rate a staff mem­ber’s cred­i­bil­ity on a scale of one to five.

Wade said Stella’s dis­re­gards its own ha­rass­ment pol­icy, and An­der­son made her feel un­com­fort­able at work. “He’d grab my (face) and tell me how cute I am, which made me feel hor­ri­bly un­com­fort­able, and I couldn’t do any­thing about it be­cause he was CEO and I thought it would put my em­ploy­ment at risk.”

“I don’t re­call that specif­i­cally,” An­der­son said, when asked about the al­le­ga­tion. “I re­ally don’t re­mem­ber any in­stance like that at all.”

Peo­ple who worked at the man­age­ment level in the restau­rant chain told the Free Press staff mem­bers were of­ten in­sulted and de­meaned in man­age­ment meet­ings by higher-ups, or were made to feel “ir­ra­tional and crazy” for bring­ing up con­cerns.

“That’s kind of what they do,” said Amanda Mur­dock, who worked at Stella’s from April 2013 to Septem­ber of 2016 in as­sis­tant and gen­eral man­age­ment po­si­tions. “I’ve wit­nessed how they trained man­age­ment to ap­proach staff this way. They would say things like, ‘All servers are lazy bitches’ and ‘all servers are lazy c---s. We can re­place them like that.’”

Mur­dock, 37, be­came preg­nant af­ter she was pro­moted to a gen­eral man­age­ment po­si­tion. She was placed on med­i­cal leave. When she was cleared to re­turn to work, Mur­dock said she was told by An­der­son her job had been given to some­one else and there wasn’t a po­si­tion for her.

She filed a claim with the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion, which she didn’t pur­sue be­cause she was al­lowed to re­turn as an as­sis­tant man­ager.

Anne Wy­man worked at Stella’s for five years as a server. She said she of­ten felt un­safe at work.

“I had so many ex­pe­ri­ences where the safety of staff, specif­i­cally the fe­male staff, was not pro­tected when serv­ing cus­tomers who were sex­u­ally ag­gres­sive,” Wy­man said. “I saw so many oc­ca­sions where peo­ple who had per­pet­u­ated re­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­haviour, like touch­ing or hit­ting on fe­male staff, were al­lowed to come back to the restau­rant over and over again.”

She said at Stella’s Grant Av­enue lo­ca­tion, the front-of­house staff was sub­jected to con­stant sex­ual con­ver­sa­tions by the kitchen staff, in­clud­ing rape jokes.

“They project an im­age of be­ing a sup­port­ive and safe place for a di­verse group of folks to work, but that’s not the case at all be­hind closed doors,” she said.

The other em­ploy­ees who con­tacted the Free Press said they felt like they couldn’t com­plain due to fear of re­tal­i­a­tion. Ha­j­jar be­lieves that so­cial me­dia al­lowed them to share their sto­ries on their terms. “I hope peo­ple lis­ten,” she said. “I hope other restau­rants and in­dus­tries in gen­eral see that their ac­tions are not without con­se­quence, that peo­ple are lis­ten­ing and watch­ing.”

In their state­ment Fri­day, Stella’s co-own­ers stressed they won’t tol­er­ate an en­vi­ron­ment of ha­rass­ment for their em­ploy­ees.

“We do not be­lieve that it would be con­struc­tive to try to pub­licly ad­dress mat­ters raised in so­cial me­dia,” the state­ment said. “We be­lieve that all con­cerned in­di­vid­u­als de­serve to be treated with ut­most re­spect and dig­nity, and their pri­vacy must be re­spected.

“For those who are crit­i­cal of us, we re­gret that we have let you down. Please let us as­sure you that Stella’s is com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing a pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment for all mem­bers of the Stella’s fam­ily by do­ing our ut­most to en­sure that ev­ery­one — em­ployee, cus­tomer, sup­plier and friend — is treated with dig­nity and re­spect.”

The con­tro­versy spilled over onto Stella’s of­fi­cial In­sta­gram page, with many posts say­ing they plan to boy­cott the busi­ness and de­mand­ing an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse.

MIKAELA MACKEN­ZIE / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

Kelsey Wade (from left), Amanda Mur­dock and Christina Ha­j­jar are speak­ing out about a work­place cul­ture of ha­rass­ment at Stella’s.

Al­le­ga­tions of in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­haviour by Stella’s em­ploy­ees were posted to In­sta­gram.

RUTH BON­NEVILLE / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Tore Sohlberg (above) and Lehla Abreder co-own Stella’s.

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