Sexual Harassment in Restaurants Could Change U.S. Corporate Culture

Young Woman Worker at Restaurant Tying Apron

Sexual harassment in restaurants has been seen as everything from out of control to just part of the job. But with one in three American workers learning the ropes in the restaurant industry, making changes there could have a ripple effect that changes American corporate culture for the better.

In this blog post, I will review evidence that sexual harassment in restaurants is a nationwide challenge. I will explain why some commentators believe taking young servers and hostesses seriously when sexual harassment happens could empower them to respond differently later in their careers and change the way employers across the country address sexual harassment complaints.

Sexual Harassment in Restaurants is a Rampant Problem

The restaurant industry has a problem with sexual harassment, from managers, coworkers, and from its customers. According to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), an organization that advocates on behalf of servers and other tip-based employees, around 80% of women working in restaurants report experiencing harassment from their customers and coworkers. Two thirds say the sexual misconduct comes from management. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also reports twice as many sexual harassment complaints from restaurant workers as would be suggested by their employment numbers.

This would be troubling in any industry. But it is especially problematic because restaurants are often young workers' point of entry into the workforce. One in three American workers learn how to be an employee in the service industry. Half of the U.S.'s workforce will be employed by a restaurant at some point in their lives. Saru Jayaraman, President of ROC told Rewire News:

“We’re not talking about a small sliver of the population that experiences this industry in their youth...
“These early experiences ... normalize[] harassment, it forces women to accept harassment later in life.
“For the rest of our lives, women believe anything that is not what we experienced in the industry is better and therefore okay, acceptable, tolerable, even legal.”

Tipping Minimum Wage Forces Employees to Tolerate Harassment to Make Rent

ROC attributes much of the sexual harassment in restaurants to problems with the United States minimum wage law, specifically to the tipping minimum wage. The federal minimum wage is set by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) at $7.25. But if an employee receives more than $30 in tips per month, that person is considered a Tipped Employee and need only be paid $2.13 per hour. The government assumes tips will make up the difference.

But tipped workers say relying on gratuity to pay the rent makes it hard to stand up to sexual harassment at restaurants. Jenna Watanabe was a server in Utah earning $2.13 plus tips. She told Rewire News:

“'My income was totally reliant on the approval of strangers,' she said Tuesday during a call with the media. That left her financial prospects in chaos. 'I had a lot of fluctuations in my income. It was really challenging for me to pay rent and school tuition.'”

ROC says moving away from a separate tipping minimum wage will significantly decrease the rate of sexual harassment in restaurants. Seven states — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — have mandated that all workers be paid the same minimum wage, regardless of tips. New York is considering doing the same, and Michigan advocates are collecting signatures to put a minimum wage measure on the November ballot.

Increasing the minimum wage does more than provide financial security to tipped workers. It gives women the power to say something when a customer acts inappropriately, rather than tolerating it out of fear that they won't be paid fairly.

Better Responses to Sexual Harassment in Restaurants Could Train a Generation

Part of the challenge facing women servers also comes from poor management responses to their complaints of sexual harassment. Statistically, younger women are more likely to be hired for front-of-the-house positions — like servers and host positions — while men are more likely to work in the kitchen and in restaurant management. When a woman complains of sexual harassment while working at a restaurant, it is often up to a man to decide whether to take the complaint seriously. Historically, the answer has often been to ignore the problem.

Marisa Licandro, for example, was the victim of an attempted rape by a coworker at an on-campus restaurant while she was in culinary school. She reports "it was made unimportant by the people I reported it to." Her manager did not reassign her, and eventually she had to quit to get away from the harasser. She said:

“I didn’t take my own story seriously because of the years I spent in the industry witnessing these things happening and not seeing any conversation or solutions. . . . My years in the industry clouded my concept of what sexual harassment and assault are, and it left me unable to even understand my own experience.”

One Restaurant's "Management Alert Color System" Empowers Servers to Fight Back

But even where legislatures and voters aren't taking up the plight of tipped workers, restaurant owners can and have taken steps to fight back against sexual harassment in restaurants. When Erin Wade, a former labor attorney turned restaurateur, learned that harassment was a regular problem at her mac-and-cheese joint in Oakland California, she and her staff created the Management Alert Color System (MACS) to empower servers to stand up to sexual harassment before it had time to escalate.

MACS gives servers three threat levels to respond to sexual harassment concerns with customers:

  • Yellow if a customer gives a server an unsavory look or makes him or her uncomfortable
  • Orange if a customer makes verbal comments about a server's appearance or uses sexual undertones
  • Red if a customer does an overtly sexual act, including physical contact or lewd language

Each category has an automatic response from managements. At yellow, a server can ask a manager to keep an eye on the situation or take over the table. Orange means the manager will take over automatically and may speak to the customer about the behavior. Red means the customer is asked to leave.

The system has been very successful, and many restaurant owners have contacted Wade about adopting similar policies. She says the system works because it is simple, keeps servers from having to relive the incident in reporting it, and means managers don't have to make judgment calls.

If owners and managers adopt policies like MACS, bystander training, and other strategies to reduce sexual harassment in restaurants it will do more than protect present day servers — though that is important in its own right. By teaching young employees they have the right not to be harassed at work, restaurateurs can teach the next generation that sexual harassment at work is not okay, and that they have the power to fight back.

At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys understand the struggles of servers and others facing sexual harassment in restaurants. We will meet with you and review your options to get you back to a comfortable working environment. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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