New Study Shows Tipped Employees Suffer Way More Sexual Harassment

A new study from Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) reveals some interesting data about how the tipped sub-minimum wage of $2.13/hour leads to an increase in sexual harassment, and comes to a simple conclusion: get rid of it entirely.

The study, titled “The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry,” was conducted by Forward Together in conjunction with ROC and with the cooperation of both Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising and the National Organization for Women, among others. It consisted of 688 employees of both genders across 39 states, with focus groups in four major cities (Houston, DC, New York, and New Orleans). The study, it has to be noted, has not been peer-reviewed.

Restaurant Opportunities Founder Saru Jayaraman refers to the restaurant industry as having “more sexual harassment than any industry in the US,” and there’s data to back up that claim: more sexual harassment claims through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry than from anywhere else. While sexual harassment is a problem for women in a wide variety of jobs and professions (by which I mean basically all of them), it’s especially an issue in restaurants. According to Eveline Shen of Forward Together, 80% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment from co-workers, managers, customers, or some combination thereof.

The most important of the study’s conclusions is that that servers appear to report significantly more harassment (and a greater willingness to tolerate sexual harassment) in the 43 states using a tipped sub-minimum wage than in the seven states that don’t have one. While employees are (slightly) more likely to experience harassment from co-workers than from customers, in those instances, they also reported feeling more like they were able to tell the offending party to stop. This confirms what we’ve heard from overwhelming anecdotal evidence for quite a while: servers are far more likely to tolerate intolerable behavior if their ability to pay the rent is on the line.

The study also goes into the way uniforms contribute to sexual harassment. Thirty percent of workers reported that male and female employees are required to wear different uniforms. The study’s findings seem to indicate* that workers were twice as likely to report suffering sexual harassment if the uniforms were different than if they were the same. Women in states with a tipped minimum wage also reported that they were three times more likely to be told to “dress sexy” by management in order to get better tips.

According to Ensler, both the existence of the tipped sub-minimum wage and the prevalence of harassment and assault within the industry speak to “that we don’t take service seriously as a profession, that we don’t pay workers what they deserve…[it] is an indication of what we feel about the value of women’s work itself.” Jayaraman likewise points out that in other countries, people attend schools and universities to study being a server — and in many of those countries, high tips are considered demeaning because servers are professionals paid by their employers rather than surviving off the largesse of customers. **

ROC and Forward Together say they would like to conduct future studies to compare these numbers with the rates of sexual harassment in other countries, though this particular study only pertained to the US restaurant industry. They also did not collect information on the prevalence of sexual harassment in various types of restaurant environments (family restaurants vs. fine dining, for example) as part of the study, though Jayaraman is adamant that sexual harassment is an industry-wide problem. She noted that while we typically think of this behavior as occurring primarily at Hooters, the stories they’ve received indicate that’s not the case.

The study’s conclusions are unsurprising: the tipped minimum wage should be done away with entirely in favor of one fair wage — a subject Kitchenette has discussed before at length. Considering that workers in states without a sub-minimum tipped wage report significantly less sexual harassment, it’s pretty easy to make the argument that workers would suffer less of it, not to mention tolerating less of it, if the tipped minimum wage were completely abolished.

It’s increasingly difficult to argue that the tipped minimum wage is anything less than a farce designed to allow restaurant owners (particularly large corporate restaurant entities) to pad their pockets as much as possible. All arguments in favor of it basically have to rely on “but businesses,” a claim that falls apart when one considers that in the states where it has already been abolished, restaurants operate perfectly well.

It’s time for it to go.

* It’s worth noting that significant portions of this study’s figures are not necessarily well-presented for interpretation. The figure this particular bit of information was taken from, for example, says “YES” and “NO” and doesn’t report whether “NO” also includes restaurants where no uniform was present, or just restaurants where uniforms were the same based on gender.

** A viewpoint that has been repeatedly echoed in the comments section of this website.

Image via Africa Studio/Shutterstock.

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