Two women allege that because their sexual harassment complaints weren't taken seriously, they were forced to quit their full-time waitressing jobs at an East Side Mario's restaurant in Woodstock, Ont.

"I thought, 'You don't believe us?'" says 21-year-old Adrienne Young when she left her job in August. "I just felt betrayed."

So did co-worker Megan Cleary, 20, who quit at the same time. "I was like, wow, I did this for nothing."

Following a CBC News investigation, Young and Cleary learned on Sept. 13 that their alleged harasser had been fired. But that's not the verdict they got when they launched their complaint close to two months earlier.

The women came forward after they claim a male manager had been harassing them for months at work by touching them inappropriately and making sexual comments.

Megan Cleary East Side Mario's sexual harassment

Cleary left her job at East Side Mario's in August. (Dawn Cleary)

"He'd come up behind me and get really close to me in my ear and say vulgar things," says Cleary, claiming it got worse when the harassment turned physical.

"He started grabbing my butt and grabbing my boobs, and he would grab me from in front and thrust himself into me. It made me feel absolutely disgusting."

"He would turn everything sexual," claims Young, who says the physical harassment made her feel the most uncomfortable. "Like touching, like hugging from behind and I'd push him away and he'd still keep on."

'Leaving a place that we loved'

Both women allege the manager ignored their repeated pleas to stop, and that he sexually harassed other female employees as well. On July 19, they decided to speak out.

Joined by their mothers, they arranged a meeting with the restaurant's general manager to detail their complaints. They also submitted written statements.

A few weeks later, Young and Cleary were shocked when they say the general manager told them the franchise owner had decided there wasn't enough evidence to remove the manager from his job.

East Side Mario's

East Side Mario's said it took the allegations of sexual harassment by a manager very seriously and have fired him. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

The two women never received a written statement detailing the results of the investigation, which is required by Ontario law.

"There needs to be some formal results or determination as a result of the investigation," says Chantel Goldsmith with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP in Toronto.

"Employees have a right to be free from harassment and discrimination in the workplace," adds the employment lawyer.

Knowing they'd still have to work alongside their alleged harasser, Young and Cleary believed the only way they could be free from harassment was to quit their jobs.

'We were leaving a place that we loved," says Cleary. "It was heartbreaking."

Won't give up the fight

Megan Cleary's mother, Dawn Cleary, contacted Woodstock police which is now investigating the matter.

She also launched complaints about how the situation was handled with the restaurant's franchise owner, Frank Spadafora, and Cara Operations, owner of the East Side Mario's chain.

She also sent them statements from four other former female employees from the same restaurant who had come forward. Two of them were willing to speak with CBC News.  

One said she witnessed the manager sexually harassing other women at work. Another claimed he made sexual comments to her on the job, such as telling her she needed to give him a sexual favour in exchange for his assistance. She says the harassment was a big reason she quit.

In an email sent on Aug. 30, Spadafora thanked Dawn Cleary for sharing the statements and said that when confronted the previous week, the manager had denied any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, he had agreed to take an indefinite leave of absence from work.

The Clearys and Young were still not satisfied.

"Him having the ability to come back [to work] with no consequences, what would stop him from doing it again?" says Dawn Cleary.

Soon after that, she reached out to CBC News.

We contacted Spadafora and Cara Operations to inquire about the allegations. The next day, the company responded that the manager had been fired following a recent investigation by the franchise owner. 

"This matter was taken very seriously," said Ken Otto, East Side Mario's president, in an email. "The health and safety of our employees and guests is of the utmost importance for East Side Mario's."

Otto also said that the franchise owner has reached out to the parties involved to notify them of the outcome. 

Cleary and Young were notified of the firing just hours before CBC News received its response from the company. 

Harassment and food service

Sexual harassment continues to be a problem in the restaurant industry, which attracts young and sometimes vulnerable workers. According to Restaurants Canada, one in five people between ages 15 and 24 are employed in the business. For many of them, it's their first job.

A recent U.S. survey of female employees in the fast food industry found 40 per cent of them reported they had experienced sexual harassment at work.

Jollibee restaurant tray

A recent U.S. survey of female employees in the fast food industry found 40 per cent reported they had experienced sexual harassment at work. (CBC)

Sixty per cent of the respondents who faced extensive harassment said they felt they had to put up with it because they couldn't afford to leave their jobs.

The Hart Research study polled 1,217 women aged 16 and older in July 2016.

Megan Cleary and Young say they wouldn't put up with the harassment and that's why they left their jobs. Although the manager has now been fired, they still believe the system let them down.

"If it was dealt with professionally, then I would still be working there," says Cleary.