Living off tips not only contributes to high levels of economic insecurity for workers and their families; it also makes all workers, and in particular women, vulnerable to a great deal of inappropriate behavior from customers, co-workers, and management. In collaboration with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Forward Together, and several other organizations, Wider Opportunities for Women today released the report The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry. This report dramatically details how sexual harassment is endemic to the restaurant industry. One of the most powerful findings is that the tipping structure – where workers are paid a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour—creates an environment and a dynamic that actually fosters sexual harassment as part of the work environment.
Surveying workers throughout the country, it is staggering to learn that two-thirds of female workers and over half of male workers had experienced some form of sexual harassment from management; nearly 80% of women and 70% of men experienced some form of sexual harassment from co-workers; and nearly 80% of women and 55% of men experienced some form of sexual harassment from customers. And ALL restaurant workers in states that have a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, report higher rates of sexual harassment, than workers in states that pay a higher minimum wage.
Why is the tipping structure so important to this? Since restaurant workers living off tips are forced to rely on customers for their income rather than their employer, these workers must often tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers, co-workers, and management. Not surprisingly then, the restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the U.S. While seven percent of American women work in the restaurant industry, more than a third of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from the restaurant industry. What is even more disturbing is that the high levels of complaints to the EEOC may actually underreport the industry’s rate of sexual harassment. Restaurant workers reported that sexual harassment is “kitchen talk,” a “normalized” part of the work environment. And many restaurant workers are reluctant to publicly acknowledge their experiences with sexual harassment. This is the everyday work life for the 11 million restaurant workers in the United States.
Close to 20 years ago, when I conducted my own ethnographic research on restaurant workers, tipped workers earned the same sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour that workers today are paid. And the restaurant workers I spoke with, almost two decades ago, talked about the ways that sexual harassment and sexual behaviors were institutionalized into the work environment. So despite the passing of 20 years, some things have just remained the same. Tipped workers continue to remain vulnerable—both in terms of their economic security and the prevalence of sexual harassment–in America’s restaurants. Isn’t it about time we do something about this? Not only is it time to raise the minimum wage and eliminate the tipped sub-minimum wage so that workers can earn enough to support themselves and their families, but we need to improve the working conditions for the people who serve our food and mix our drinks.