Economy

In The Restaurant Industry, ‘If You’re Not Being Harassed, Then You’re Not Doing The Right Thing’

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Tiffany Kirk has had customers grope her, slap her butt, and try to get her phone number. She even had one lick her hand. As someone who has been a bartender in Houston for the last six or seven years, supporting herself and her three-year-old daughter, sexual harassment “is almost expected,” she said. “It’s kind of a running joke in the industry: If you’re not being harassed, then you’re not doing the right thing.” Male customers have followed her to her car after her shift and tipped her with hotel keys “because apparently if you work at a bar you’re a prostitute,” she said.

“I’m not even exaggerating when I say it’s an everyday thing,” she added.

She considers these stories to be mild. “I haven’t even experienced the most intense treatment from patrons,” she said. Even so, they probably sound familiar to the vast majority of women in the industry.

The restaurant industry is already notorious for sexual harassment: while 7 percent of women work there, it’s responsible for 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Yet even that is an undercount. In new research that surveyed 688 current and recent restaurant industry employees, the restaurant worker group ROC United found that 60 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment, with over half saying it happens at least weekly. Men also reported experiencing harassment, although at lower rates. Nearly 80 percent of women had experienced sexual harassment from customers, with a third dealing with it on a weekly basis. Two-thirds said customers made suggestive jokes or remarks, over half had experienced suggestive looks or gestures, over 40 percent had been pressured about going on dates with customers, and over a third were deliberately touched or pinched.

Women also experience harassment at the hands of managers and coworkers: two-thirds said they were harassed by management and nearly 80 percent by coworkers.

While that’s not the case at Kirk’s current job, she said she experienced that kind of harassment “off and on throughout the years.” Some of that came in the form of being told how to keep up her appearance. Managers tell employees to “maintain your weight, be date-ready…wear two bras, wear shorter shorts, make sure you legs are tanned and shaved,” she said. “You have to look good. None of the girls I work with now don’t look date-ready when we go to work.”

But harassment from customers, not managers, is the most uncomfortable for women in the restaurant industry: 90 percent reported they were bothered by it, while 40 percent were highly bothered. It can also be hard to address. “If I tell my manager to get rid of a customer, that’s revenue taken directly out of our pocket” in the form of tips, she said. And since her tips are pooled with her coworkers, she would feel like she’s taking money from them too.

Tipping, in fact, seems to heighten an already bad situation. Over half of tipped workers in ROC’s report said that depending on tips led them to “tolerate inappropriate behaviors that made them nervous or uncomfortable.” As Kirk put it, “We practically have to sell ourselves… it’s almost like prostitution.”

ROC found that the “very highest rates of sexual harassment are experienced by women, in tipped occupations, in states where the sub-minimum wage is $2.13 an hour.” Unlike all other workers, those who earn tips can be paid that low-wage so long as their tips add up to the full minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Just eight states require these employees to be paid the full minimum wage.

In the rest of the states where the wage floor is just $2.13, women are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment. They reported being three times as likely to be told to change the way they looked or to wear sexier or more revealing clothes by management. And given that men and transgender workers in states with the lower tipped wage also reported higher rates of harassment, “the overall restaurant work environment is at least partially shaped by the sub-minimum wage system itself,” the report concludes.

Kirk agrees that working for tips puts her and her coworkers in a bad position. “If we had a higher wage, I think [harassment] would be a lot less commonplace,” she said. “We’d be put in a position of power to stand up for ourselves, tell people that this is not an acceptable behavior. As of right now we can’t, because then we don’t make any money.”

But in the current system, there are few, if any, venues for handling the harassment. The majority of women say they ignore harassment from customers, management, and coworkers. That’s because they worry what would happen if they raised an actual complaint: 70 percent felt they would experience repercussions for reporting or complaining about harassment from customers. “I can’t think of a single time in all of my years of doing this that an employee has been like, ‘This is enough, we need to go to the higher-ups, this isn’t isn’t being addressed,'” Kirk acknowledged. Although she has had customers thrown out of the bar before, it’s risky, reducing “not only your money but your friends’ money as well,” she noted.

“You would think your place of employment would protect you,” she said. “We have door guys and bouncers, but they’re not there to protect you, they’re there to protect patrons from each other.”

The lower minimum wage also makes things difficult financially. “It’s absolutely tough to get by,” Kirk said. “There’s no way to gauge what we’re making every shift… Money management is nearly impossible.” And the money is, usually, sparse anyway. The median wage for tipped workers, even including their tips, is about $9 an hour, and more than one in ten workers say their wages and tips don’t even add up to $7.25. Women are at a particular disadvantage, being overrepresented in tipped jobs and experiencing poverty at nearly one and one-third the rate that men in the industry do.

A higher wage, she thinks, would solve many of these problems. “It would put some integrity back into the job,” she said. “We shouldn’t be treated like animals. It’s not a zoo.”