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How Do We Make Chicago’s Restaurant Industry Safer For Women? Believe Survivors, Expert Says

A national group is trying to revolutionize the restaurant industry by listening to women and others who have faced abuse in the field.

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Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of domestic abuse. If you or someone you know needs help, please click here or call 773-278-4566.

DOWNTOWN — Multiple women came forward last week to accuse a prominent figure in the Downtown restaurant scene of physically and verbally abusing them.

Women and men who had worked with Josh Schatan — who most recently managed a string of Downtown restaurants for WellDone Hospitality — said he was verbally abusive and, to the women he dated, physically abusive. One woman, who dated and worked for Schatan, said he even attacked her at the restaurant where they worked in May 2018 — but he wasn’t fired in the aftermath.

Chauntel Gerdes, an adviser to Women in Hospitality United, said the allegations were “alarming but not surprising.”

The restaurant industry is known for its high-pressure and high-temper culture, and it has been criticized as toxic for years due to issues with verbal abuse and sexual harassment. Workplace violence — which ranges from verbal abuse to physical assaults — and domestic violence can have longterm impacts on the mental health of victims, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Gerdes’ organization, a national group created in response to the MeToo movement, seeks to help change the hospitality industry and end the sexual harassment and assault of women working within it. She said there are abusive practices within the industry that “people have normalized for a really long time” to the point people might not even recognizing they’re being abused in the workplace.

Most violence is perpetrated by someone the victim knows, not a stranger, which is frightening in itself, Gerdes said. That also makes it hard for people to people to seek outside help or leave the person abusing them because they care about that person, don’t want the person arrested or think the person might change.

That can be even further complicated for women who work with their partner in hospitality because, if they leave a person who is hurting them, they might also need to leave their job, Gerdes said. They might worry about being blacklisted from other jobs in the industry, too.

“One bad word [and] what is that going to do to their prospects in terms of finding other employment?” Gerdes said.

But creating safe, nonjudgmental spaces and groups for people to talk can help the victims get support and, in doing so, revolutionize the restaurant field by helping others understand and recognize abuse, Gerdes said.

“As we’ve seen from the MeToo movement, the more and more we create … space to normalize and talk about sexual and intimate partner violence as something that happens the more space we create for people to talk about it,” said Gerdes, who is also a trauma therapist.

RELATED: Chicago Restaurant Manager Was Notorious For Abusing Women, Staff — And Hospitality Group Did Nothing For Years, Victims Say

Gerdes said it’s also important to widen the definition of abuse to understand it involves a “spectrum” of behavior that can be called out. Part of that is identifying verbal abuse and aggressiveness in the workplace and addressing it to prevent further abuse.

Schatan was accused of beating and verbally abusing women he dated and worked with, but former coworkers of Schatan said he also regularly belittled them, made bigoted remarks and would threaten their jobs.

“These are red flags,” Gerdes said. “If we’re allowing someone to be homophobic or racist or behave as a bigot, or if we’re allowing someone in the workroom to minimize someone because of their gender or sexual identity … when we don’t check those or don’t challenge those as a community, that’s when the the larger acts of violence … that’s when that stuff becomes invisible and comes unchecked.”

Gerdes said those who wish to help people in the hospitality industry — and all people who are surviving different forms of abuse — can do so by listening and connecting survivors with resources where they can seek help, like domestic violence hotlines.

It’s important people living through intimate partner violence understand there are places they can go to talk without the abuse being reported to the police, Gerdes said. And people helping survivors should understand the survivors are the “experts on what keeps them safe” and should listen to what the survivors think they should do, Gerdes said.

“Help someone explore what makes them feel safe,” Gerdes said. “And connect them to resources and care and give them the option and know there are multiple options.”

And, ultimately, people should believe survivors, Gerdes said.

Women in Hospitality United is hosting a national tour where it’s bringing together stakeholders in the hospitality industry to talk about the field’s “most pressing issues” and work to find solutions. They’ll stop by Chicago on Oct. 21. Those who wish to participate can apply online.

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