Becky Lockert loved working at Bier Markt.
Not only did she enjoy the atmosphere, but she loved that she could wear a comfortable uniform: black shirt, black pants.
“I started working at the Bier Markt partly because I was so enamoured by the gender-neutral uniform,” she said.
“Regardless of whether you were a man or a woman, everyone was wearing black polo golf shirts. Everyone was wearing black pants. You had options.”
But last month, female servers at Bier Markt locations across Ontario and Quebec were told they no longer had options. They had to pay the company $70 for a skintight, sleeveless, short blue dress made of stretchy, sheer polyester you could almost see through. They were told to start wearing “black, polishable” high heels.
Male servers’ uniforms didn’t change much: a pair of black jeans, button-up top and red Converse sneakers.
“Immediately this became a topic of conversation amongst myself and my female coworkers,” Lockert said.
“We were extremely uncomfortable with this.”
Bier Markt’s parent company Cara Operations told Global News in an email that “the new uniforms were selected to reflect Bier Markt’s stylish image” and that they had consulted with a few female restaurant and bartending staff before selecting the design.
When the new dress code rolled out in early October, female servers were told not to wear any sweaters, cover-ups or thick tights.
According to the CBC, when one server pointed out her underwear was visible through the dress, a manager reportedly told her to wear a thong instead.
But after at least 40 other female servers objected to the uniform, Cara offered to lengthen the dress’s hemline by two inches and allow employees to wear short sweaters.
The heels were another matter.
Lockert said she and a colleague told their employer they were worried for their safety navigating the restaurant in high heels. The response from Cara, she said, was that the women could opt to wear non-heeled shoes.
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But when Lockert printed out that response and posted it up at work her manager ripped it down and called a staff meeting saying that the women would have to wear high heels, regardless, she said.
Lockert has worked in establishments with “sexualized uniforms” before, she says. She left: It made her feel unsafe and discriminated against.
For that same reason she quit her Bier Markt job a day before the new uniform policy began.
Tierney Angus is still working as a server at Bier Markt. When she raised her concerns about the skimpy uniform, she says, her manager cut her work hours and threatened to suspend her.
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Angus eventually hired employment lawyer Barbara Green from Toronto-based firm Robins Appleby.
“That was the concern with the dress: that it was not practical. That when you bend over to pick something up, your backside is exposed,” Green said.
“So she felt exposed, vulnerable and very uncomfortable.”
Green said Angus was ready to take legal action had Cara not reversed its new uniform policy after a month to allow female servers the option of jeans, a button-up top and sneakers.
“I think if there hadn’t been a resolution, she would have been prepared to file a formal complaint [to the Human Rights Commission],” Green said.
“The dress code appears to be potentially discriminatory and that was the complaint that my client had raised. But as to whether it is in fact discriminatory can only be determined by a tribunal.”
Cara said that “the majority of feedback to our new uniforms has been very positive.”
Lockert got another server job elsewhere — a good thing, she says, because she’s saving money for law school.
Some of her now-former colleagues did think the dress was flattering and comfortable, she said.
Lockert hopes Cara’s change of heart will be a step in the right direction for the industry as a whole.
“The biggest thing here is it’s very frustrating for us. That this kind of discrimination is so normalized in this industry,” she said.
“My only hope is that this issue with the Bier Markt doesn’t just stop here. That other restaurants, other segments of this industry start to see that it is illegal, immoral and it’s discriminatory to make your female employees dress in this fashion and take away their choices.”
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