A sexual harassment lawsuit against Carrols Corp. has grown from one accuser six years ago to 511 current and former Burger King workers in 13 states.
Officials at Syracuse, N.Y.-based Carrols say the large number of accusers is a result of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission going on a “fishing expedition” with solicitation letters to as many as 175,000 former workers.
The EEOC’s lawsuit against Carrols is the largest sexual harassment case the agency has ever handled in both number of accusers and geographic area, said agency attorney Sunu Chandy. “We think it’s the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
Sexual harassment claims at more than half of Carrols’ 351 Burger King restaurants in 13 states have been filed with the EEOC from the period 1994 to 2002, according to the agency.
Carrols officials say the number of claims is minuscule compared with the 250,000 people who worked at the restaurants over that period.
The case began in 1998 when the EEOC sued Carrols on behalf of a former worker at a Burger King in Glens Falls. The EEOC sent out questionnaires about harassment to Carrols employees who worked at the company’s Burger Kings from 1993 to 2002.
Carrols Corp., the largest Burger King franchisee in the country, said the company has a strong policy against sexual harassment and none of the individual claims has been proven. The company fired at least 42 workers for sexual harassment during the time studied by the EEOC, lawyers said.
“The EEOC has the ability to burden a company with protracted litigation that’s very expensive,” said Carrols’ general counsel Joseph Zirkman. “They’re able to beat up companies, and most of them settle for extortion dollars.”
Carrols’ lawyers have asked U.S. District Judge Frederick Scullin to throw out the lawsuit on the grounds that the EEOC hasn’t proven the company had a policy that allowed sexual harassment.
The numbers aren’t as significant as the “quality” of the claims, Chandy said. More than 70 percent of the accusations are against mid-level managers and above who were moved to other restaurants and had multiple victims, she said.
“Female employees were physically and verbally harassed in vile and humiliating ways,” the EEOC said in court papers. “They were assaulted, grabbed and called numerous offensive sexual terms.”
Carrols said 47 percent of the claims alleged jokes or gestures; 37 percent bumping or touching; 10 percent physical aggression, including the intentional contact of sexual organs; and 6.3 percent sexual advances.
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