For women working in the service industry, the stories of sexual harassment, and even assault, seem to be never-ending. The issue is often explained away as “bar culture,” and workers are told there isn’t much that can be done to stop it. But is there really nothing that can be done? Why do we accept such lowly behavior from customers, and why is being in a restaurant environment, or adding alcohol, any excuse for a person to touch or verbally assault the person taking their order?
On Monday, many women shared posts with the phrase “Me too” to break the silence of, or show support for, the vast number of women who have experienced sexual assault or harassment throughout their lifetime. Women from all walks of life took to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to share their stories. Nearly every industry and type of workplace seemed represented, and many workers in the restaurant and bar industry shared stories of being harassed on the job.
A report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center United found that 80% of female restaurant workers have been harassed on the job. 50% reported that relying on tips for their income led female workers to accept behavior that made them uncomfortable. Over half of the tipped workers surveyed who reported being made uncomfortable by a customer said they didn’t report the incident because they “believed [they] would get smaller tips.”
The median hourly income for restaurant and bar workers varies from state to state. The Federal Minimum Cash Wage for tipped employees is $2.13. Many states pay a higher minimum, but for 18 of the 50 states, the minimum is as low as $2.13. It is no coincidence that in those states, reports of sexual harassment are higher. That minimum has not changed since 1991, despite changes to cost of living.
Often this behavior is dismissed as “bar culture” or just part of the job, but the expectation that a customer can or should withhold a worker’s pay if that worker isn’t willing to engage in a flirtation that makes the worker uncomfortable, is unacceptable. That same ROC study found that two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, and most tipped workers in the restaurant and service industry are women. Working for tips means employees don’t just work for their employer — they work for their customers, and therefore have to meet expectations to get paid.
When those expectations go too far like workers are often expected to politely comply in order to make their money. “It’s part of the culture,” seems to get thrown around as an excuse for customers to validate their behavior and employers to validate their complicity in it. The transaction between customer and worker can be an uncomfortable one because of this. Each customer becomes a boss and therefore may believe they get to call the rules.
Some restaurants and bars perpetuate this kind of culture and behavior by requiring workers to wear sexualized uniforms like those so lovingly nicknamed "Breastaurants," or by requiring workers to flirt back with customers for the culture.
It’s not just female workers; male restaurant employees also reported high numbers of unwanted sexual attention from customers and coworkers, like this waiter whose sexually explicit messages from a customer read like a horrible Tinder conversation.
It isn’t just the restaurant or bar industry either, and you don’t have to work at a place with scandalous uniforms to get the brunt of brute behavior. Service workers in family style restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, ice cream shops, and more are expected to sit through uncomfortable interactions with customers with a smile and a good attitude. After all, the customer is always right.
The problem with sexual harassment is systemic, deep, and much bigger than just the restaurant industry. Improving the minimum wage might help tipped workers, but there is still work to be done to end the inappropriate behavior they come up against.
Top photo: Pixabay
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McKenzie Schwark is a writer living in New York City. You can find her work at www.mckenzieschwark.com or follow her @schwarkattack.