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Basu: Reality bruises myth of happy Hooters girl

The Hooters restaurant in Davenport, Iowa, may not know employment law very well, but it sure knows irony.

The Hooters chain likes to sell fantasy along with their chicken wings. But a recent ruling on an unemployment claim at the Davenport operation suggests it is mythology they’re really banking on. Like the myth that because their female servers appear smiling and eager to please, they’re well served by sexism.

A former waitress named Sara Dye was barred from returning to the Davenport restaurant after being the victim of savage domestic assaults. They left her unconscious and disfigured, with her hair chopped off.

At her employer’s suggestion, she had taken time off to recover, but when she later tried to return, the restaurant didn’t let her. It rejected her unemployment claims, saying she had abandoned her job.

In the hearing, management claimed the bruises on Dye’s face and body were incompatible with an image the restaurant promotes.

“Our handbook states you have to have a glamorous appearance,” general manager Gina Sheedy testified. “It doesn’t actually say, ‘Bruises on your face are not allowed.’ It does talk about the all-American cheerleader look.”

The judge ruled Dye is entitled to collect unemployment.

It’s a sad day when an employer turns its back on an employee who has been the victim of a horrible crime. But at one level, you can see the manager’s point.

The restaurant has built its business on selling fantasies about the peppy, willing and eager-to-serve Hooters Girl. Any hint of ugliness mars the fantasy.

And so does any reminder that women who put themselves completely in the service of men could be taken advantage of, sometimes very badly. This was a case of real life inconveniently intruding on the myth.

Hooters restaurants have been forced to confront their myths before – including the myth that the way the chain markets its waitresses can be separated from the ugly fallout that might result.

One class-action suit filed by a former employee and 1,000 Hooters Girls alleged that Hooters put its female employees at risk of sexual harassment through the uniforms it required them to wear and the marketing of its restaurants – and then forced them to surrender their rights against sexual harassment.

A former waitress in Myrtle Beach, S.C., alleged she was sexually harassed on the job by a former manager and by the relative of an executive, but when she tried to complain, the company sued her.

The restaurant claimed that by signing the Hooters policy, employees gave up their right to pursue sexual-harassment claims.

The Myrtle Beach waitress said she had agreed to wear the Hooters shorts and T-shirts and do the job asked of her, but in return, Hooters agreed to protect her from sexual harassment.

Of course it should have protected her, but isn’t that a contradiction, when the whole set-up encourages waitresses to at least appear to welcome male attention, even when it is actually unwanted?

There have been other lawsuits against Hooters, including one by more than 40 women in Los Angeles, who said they were secretly filmed while undressing for their job interviews.

Employers can’t put women out there as objects and then wash their hands of the consequences. But the restaurant wouldn’t want customers to see how powerless those Hooters Girls really are.

We don’t know about Dye’s assailant, but we can guess that she lacked much power in that relationship, just as she would lack it in a job that lures customers by allusions to employees’ breasts.

Hooters should have let Dye serve, bruises and all. It might have shown another reality beneath that cheerleader veneer.

Rekha Basu is an editorial columnist for the Des Moines Register. E-mail: rbasu@dmreg.com.

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