Breast defense

Michelle Harrison wasn't naive. She knew what she was getting into when she began working for the Hooters Restaurant in Kissimmee in the summer of 1997. The restaurant's male-dominated, sexually-charged atmosphere, inspired mainly by the Hooters waitress uniform -- a tight white shirt and short orange shorts -- was "the next notch down from the nudie bars," she says.

Still, when you're 21 years old, living on your own and trying to make car and tuition payments, you go where the money is. "You're single, young, making good money -- life was great," says Harrison, an Orlando native who easily fit in among the other Hooters girls. She eventually worked her way up to bartender and helped out as a member of an arbitration committee and corporate trainer.

Then Harrison had a daughter named Clover, and her career at Hooters plummeted, she says, because she couldn't tolerate the boorish behavior of her male co-workers. According to Harrison, male managers and kitchen staff became obsessed with her pumping breast milk several times a shift. They would make lewd comments and suggest that Harrison be a source for their breast milk. "I like mine straight from the tap," one manager allegedly said.

Things became so bad, Harrison says, that she quit the restaurant and filed a lawsuit, alleging job discrimination and retaliation after she complained to management that the harassment had to end. Both allegations, if true, are violations of the Civil Rights Act. Her lawsuit asks for back pay, punitive damages and attorney's fees.

"I was a model employee," says Harrison, who is now 26. "For two years they thought the best of me. I had a great time working there. Then all of a sudden the harassment starts, and I put my foot down."

Hooters attorneys are not discussing the case except to deny that the 17-year-old restaurant chain is culpable.

"We feel there's been no violation of the law in this case," says Atlanta-based attorney Mark D. Halverson. "We have an internal policy to address concerns. She used it. We're disappointed that having used the policy, she then turned to litigation."

The Hooters restaurant chain, 282 taverns serving burgers and chicken wings, is no stranger to the courtroom, especially when it comes to discrimination complaints. In 1997 Hooters settled its most infamous case, a suit filed by men who were denied jobs as waiters because of their sex. The company paid $3.75 million but received a court order allowing the company to hire only women to wait on customers. The reason: Hooters successfully argued that its waitresses' primary goal wasn't to serve food but to provide "vicarious sexual recreation."

In what is believed to be the first pregnancy-related discrimination suit filed against Hooters, two New Orleans women each won $20,000 last year after a judge ruled that the restaurant had reduced the number of shifts they worked because they were pregnant. (The restaurant fired one woman for alleged poor service.)

Harrison's problems with the Kissimmee Hooters didn't begin with her announced pregnancy, though she says managers weren't too happy to learn she would soon be a mother. "Nobody throws a party for you, put it that way," Harrison says. Rather, the alleged harassment began when she returned from maternity leave in December 1999.

Harrison wanted to breast-feed Clover, which meant that she'd have to take two 15-minute breaks during her eight-hour shift. The breaks allowed her to express herself with a machine while she ate a snack.

After several weeks, managers became impatient with her breaks, banging on walls and screaming, "Let's go," even though, Harrison says, she took breaks during slow hours and waitresses typically took longer breaks to smoke and eat.

Harrison's suit alleges that a general manager, Larry Linen, and assistant manager, Travis Eichensehr, were among the worst offenders, often making comments in front of customers.

Linen would ask if she needed help pumping her breasts and make jokes and comments, the suit alleges.

Eichensehr allegedly went much further. According to Harrison's complaint, he would ask if he could have "milk with his Danish," make sucking noises while gesturing with his hands, and once took a plastic bag with several ounces of Harrison's milk from the refrigerator, held it up and asked, "Is this all you get?"

Why all the sudden attention? Harri-son doesn't really know. "Managers at Hooters get a little nervous when they find out what breasts are really for," says Harrison's attorney, Timothy R. Shea.

Harrison says she complained but was ignored. "I told them they were gross," Harrison says. "It was really kind of humiliating. It's totally natural -- the best thing for a child. But I was almost embarrassed to be nursing `Clover`."

Eventually Harrison confronted Hooters' new general manager, George Isom, in his office. A week later, Harrison says Isom called her and said he had a talk with Eichensehr and that the assistant manager would apologize.

After several weeks Eichensehr was promoted to general manager at the Altamonte Springs Hooters. "Needless to say, I never got an apology," Harrison says.

Instead, she says she was alienated by management. Managers allegedly cut her bar shifts, forcing her to work the less-desirable waitress shifts. Harrison says they also began either glaring at her or refusing to speak with her. "I was queen for a couple of years and all of a sudden the queen was dethroned," Harrison says. "I was the bartender, then I wasn't the bartender. I've never had psychotic problems, but all of a sudden I began having anxiety attacks. I was really stressed out and had all of the physical things that go with that. I couldn't take it."

Eventually her alienation became unbearable, Harrison says, and she walked out before a shift last summer.

"This is about the company's attitude towards pregnancy as much as it is a continual failure to stop the harassment," Shea says. "Much of this is attributable to ignorance. But once the ignorance goes beyond a certain point, it should be illegal."

As for Hooters, Harrison says that at least her complaints had some effect. She says managers discovered a waitress who was quietly expressing her milk in the wake of Harrison's alleged problems. But there were no jokes or bullying, she says. "They treated her with kid gloves."