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    Kitchen workers sue McCormick & Schmick’s, alleging sexual harassment

    Attorneys Rachel Smit and Sophia Hall (from left, standing) and Ivan Espinoza of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice joined the plaintiffs Tuesday.
    David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
    Attorneys Rachel Smit and Sophia Hall (from left, standing) and Ivan Espinoza of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice joined the plaintiffs Tuesday.

    Five Latina kitchen workers filed a sexual harassment lawsuit Tuesday against the national seafood chain McCormick & Schmick’s, alleging that they were subjected to lewd comments and groping by male employees, including several supervisors, at the Faneuil Hall location in Boston.

    The charges are explicit and wide-ranging.

    When one of the women told the executive chef she was hungry, he grabbed his crotch and told her, “Eat here, this is your food,” according to the complaint. Another woman was felt up in a walk-in cooler by a sous chef and supervisor. The women were subjected to a barrage of sexually suggestive comments, hands on their bodies, a tongue in an ear — even an implication that complying might warrant more hours.

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    “I remember a male employee coming up behind me while I worked, pinning me against a table, and rubbing his penis against my rear,” one of the plaintiffs, Fabiana Santos, said in Spanish through a translator at a press conference. “That same employee often made vulgar sexual comments to me, saying things such as, ‘Ay, my love, I want to touch your’ — and used a profane word for vagina in Portuguese.”

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    Santos, a prep cook who worked at the restaurant for 13 years, said, “When I got home I felt dirty. I didn’t even want my kids to touch me.”

    The case is part of an onslaught of sexual harassment allegations around the country in recent months, a number of them in the restaurant industry.

    On Tuesday, Ken Friedman, owner of the famed Spotted Pig and other restaurants in New York, took a leave of absence after he was accused by 10 women of unwanted sexual advances in a New York Times investigation.

    On Monday, celebrity chef Mario Batali stepped down from daily operations at his restaurants in response to reports of sexual misconduct involving at least four women published by the website Eater New York. Batali owns two establishments in Boston: Babbo Pizzeria on Fan Pier and the Italian marketplace Eataly in the Prudential Center.

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    The McCormick & Schmick’s workers, who were employed as dishwashers, cleaners, or prep cooks, told their stories in front of more than a dozen cameras and microphones on Tuesday.

    After at least one complaint to management was brushed off, in the summer of 2015, according to the lawsuit, the women approached a new general manager the next month, and an investigation was conducted. The executive chef, Aaron Hopp, was cited for unprofessional behavior, but, according to the complaint, because the workers were nearly 25 years older than him, the company said that “the likelihood that Mr. Hopp interacted with the complainant(s) in a way that was intended to offend them in a sexual manner did not seem credible.”

    A dishwasher was fired, and a sous chef was suspended for a week without pay, but the company denied the men’s behavior constituted sexual harassment.

    The complaint was filed by the Boston law firm Fair Work PC and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice in Suffolk Superior Court, following a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissionthat there was reasonable cause to believe the restaurant chain discriminated against the women based on their gender.

    Julia Liebelt, vice president of human resources for McCormick & Schmick’s, said in a statement that the restaurant took “swift, appropriate action” and “did all we could to restore the work place to a harassment free environment.”

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    “The plaintiffs’ lawyers have latched on to the current frenzy concerning sexual harassment” she said, “and filed a lawsuit citing inflammatory allegations that conflicted with statements of their own clients and that at least one independent eyewitness identified during our investigation said was untrue.”

    The sexual harassment scandals that have swept the country this fall have largely involved white-collar professional women, but the problem is thought to be even more widespread among low-wage and immigrant workers. These women often don’t speak up because they can’t afford to lose their jobs, don’t speak English, or don’t know the procedures for reporting abuse.

    Undocumented immigrants fear that if they call out their harassers, they could be reported to immigration authorities. If they do come forward, lawyers often won’t take their cases because the women can’t pay upfront. And if damages for lost wages are awarded, they tend to be low, meaning a smaller cut for attorneys’ fees.

    In the restaurant industry, which employs many women and immigrants at fairly low wages, the problem is especially pronounced. Two-thirds of female restaurant workers say they have been routinely sexually harassed by managers, according to a 2014 report by the advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

    A recent report in the Globe said harassment was pervasive in local restaurants, taking place at the bar, in dining rooms, in kitchens, and at the coat check. In October, the Times-Picayune reported that more than two dozen women had been harassed while working for Besh Restaurant Group in New Orleans, co-owned by celebrity chef John Besh, who has since stepped down. Todd English, who has had multiple restaurants in Boston, was recently accused by a server of sexual harassment as part of a complaint against the Plaza Hotel in New York.

    One of the plaintiffs in the McCormick & Schmick’s case, Marta Romero, a dishwasher, said the harassment made her feel like “some object or animal.”

    “I filed this lawsuit because I want other women to know that no matter what type of work they do or who they are, they are not powerless,” she said in Spanish through a translator. “They are powerful and have legal rights.”

    Sophia Hall, one of the lawyers representing the women, noted that in addition to winning monetary damages, the goal was to “institute large-scale structural change so that women like these don’t have to experience the things that our clients did.” Hall did not elaborate on what those changes might be, but emphasized the challenges her clients faced in bringing their experiences to light.

    “With limited English-language skills, no access to an effective reporting procedure, and frankly no power, they suffered daily in humiliating ways,” she said.

    As Santos put it: “We are not famous. We are not gorgeous. But this happened to us, and we deserve respect.”

    Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.