Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday October 16th, 2014, 5:22pm

Report: Sexual Harassment Widespread In The Restaurant Industry

Many restaurant employees face frequent sexual harassment on the job from managers, co-workers and customers. 

That's according to a recent survey and report by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) and Forward Together, which found that 66 percent of female and more than half of male restaurant employees experienced sexual harassment at some point from a work superior.

The survey of 688 current and former restaurant workers in 39 states also showed that 80 percent of women and 70 percent of men faced sexual harassment at the hands of co-workers. Sexual teasing, inappropriate touching and sexually suggestive gestures are some of the harassment examples cited by workers, who were surveyed May through August of this year.

Among other troubling findings, nearly 80 percent of women and 55 percent of men reported being harassed by restaurant customers while at work.

"Our report finds that sexual harassment is absolutely systemic across the restaurant industry and is experienced by a majority of workers, but the heaviest impact is borne by women, trans people, tipped workers and workers in states that allow employers to pay tipped workers as little as $2.13 an hour," said Eveline Shen, executive director of Forward Together, a social advocacy organization.
 
"Our research shows that 60 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment and over half say they experience it on a weekly basis," she added. "Living off tips creates pressure for workers to tolerate inappropriate behavior. As one New York server said, 'There is a lot of sexual harassment but I just kind of brush it off because I just want the tip. I don’t want anything to mess up the tip.'"
 
Sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, which employs more than 11 million people, impacts all types of workers, but it is a bigger problem for those in states with a $2.13 an hour tipped minimum wage, according to the report.
 
Under federal law, employers have to pay tipped workers an hourly wage of at least $2.13. Employers can claim a "tip credit" and count workers' income from tips toward the remaining balance of the regular minimum wage. The federal wage floor for tipped workers such as waiters and bartenders has been frozen at $2.13 an hour for 23 years.
 
Nineteen U.S. states provide no more than the federal $2.13 tipped hourly wage. They also use the maximum employer tip credit of $5.12.
 
Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have tipped minimum wages greater than $2.13 an hour. Twenty-five of those states, including Illinois, and the District of Columbia have tipped minimum wages greater than $2.13 an hour but less than the regular minimum wage. The base hourly wage for tipped employees in Illinois is $4.95, while the regular minimum wage is $8.25.
 
Tipped women restaurant workers in $2.13 states are more likely to experience sexual harassment and be told to sexualize their appearance at work than those in states without a subminimum wage, according to the report.
 
Overall, all restaurant workers in subminimum wage states, including men, reported higher rates of sexual harassment. 
 
“Today, in one of the largest and fastest growing economic sectors in the country, being subjected to constant forms of sexual harassment has practically become a requirement of employment,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of ROC United, a national organization dedicated to bettering the wages and working conditions for restaurant workers. 
 
“The culture of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry isn’t an accident," she added. "We can point directly to the subminimum wage and the fact that the majority of people living off tips are women and their take-home pay is inextricably linked to enduring vile behavior from customers, co-workers and bosses. Countless young women are introduced to the world of work through the restaurant industry and they go on to be more likely to accept forms of sexual harassment as ‘just part of the job.’”
 
Other findings from the report include:
Sixty percent of women and transgender workers, and 46 percent of men reported that sexual harassment was an uncomfortable aspect of work life, and 60 percent of transgender, 50 percent of women and 47 percent of men reported experiencing ‘scary’ or ‘unwanted’ sexual behavior.
 
Forty percent of transgender, 30 percent of women, and 22 percent of men reported that being touched inappropriately was a common occurrence in their restaurant.
 
Two-thirds (66 percent) of women experienced sexual harassment from management on at least a monthly basis and over half (52 percent) on at least a weekly basis, compared to 58 percent and 40 percent of men, respectively.
 
Three-quarters (74 percent) of women experienced sexual harassment from co-workers on at least a monthly basis and 64 percent on at least a weekly basis, compared to 58 percent and 52 percent of men; and 59 percent of women experienced sexual harassment from customers on at least a monthly basis, compared to 50 percent of men.
 
One-third (33 percent) of women restaurant workers experienced sexual harassment from customers on at least a weekly basis, compared to one quarter of men restaurant workers. 

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) takes issue with the report and its findings. Christin Fernandez, the NRA's director of media relations and public affairs, issued the following statement to Progress Illinois in response to the report:

America’s restaurant industry provides opportunity to more than 13 million people of all backgrounds. Fifty percent of our nation’s restaurants are owned or co-owned by women. We take pride in the fact that more women own, operate and manage restaurants than virtually any other industry.

Tips are not discriminatory. Every tipped employee is guaranteed at least their state minimum wage and tipped restaurant employees are among the highest-paid employees in the establishment, regularly earning between $16 an hour for entry-level servers and $22 an hour for more experienced servers.  No individual is making $2.13 an hour.

These recycled attacks are part of a national, multi-million dollar campaign engineered, organized and funded by national labor unions and their allies seeking to disparage an industry that has no barrier to entry and no limit to what employees can achieve.

The National Restaurant Association takes charges of sexual harassment very seriously. The assertion from ROC that the tipped wage somehow increases sexual harassment by customers is another effort to confuse the reality of the tipped wage in the industry.

Additionally, the NRA questions the survey's methodology, noting that the "unweighted sample as detailed in the appendix skews dramatically female (77 percent), front-of-the house (91 percent) and tipped (75 percent), so when a sample is as dramatically skewed as this, weighing it to whatever is the known demographic of the universe attempting to be projected, becomes substantially more unreliable."

The report, meanwhile, includes a number of policy recommendations, including eliminating the subminimum wage for tipped workers, boosting anti-harassment employment laws and requiring restaurant employers to have written policies and training on sexual harassment. 

"There is no doubt that one fair wage for all workers is a necessary ingredient in achieving dignity and security for all workers, especially women and people of color who are over represented in low-wage restaurant work," Shen stressed.
 
Image: Adikos/Flickr

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