“Are you on the dessert menu? Because you look yummy.”
That’s an example of some of the everyday sexual harassment that an overwhelming majority of restaurant workers report experiencing on a regular basis – from their coworkers, managers, and even customers. In the restaurant industry, this kind of treatment – things like sexual or suggestive stories; offensive, crude, or sexist comments – is so common that many workers have come to think of harassment as an occupational hazard – just part of the job.
Some recent headlines that underscore just how regularly restaurant workers have to face this kind of behavior in the workplace:
Teen Chipotle Worker Wins $7.65M in Sexual Harassment Suit: A 16-year old former employee alleged sexual abuse from her adult supervisor while working at a Houston-area branch of the chain. She said she was encouraged to have unprotected sex while at work, or even on breaks.
McDonald’s Sued over ‘Systemic Sexual Harassment’ of Female Workers: In just the most recent allegations of rampant abuse at the chain, a female employee is seeking $5 million in damages. She says a coworker touched her inappropriately and propositioned her for sex. If she’s granted class-action status, more than 50 women who have worked for the same Michigan franchise could join her suit – each with their own stories of abuse.
These kinds of reports are evidence that the world is starting to take the culture of inappropriate behavior in restaurants seriously. But we believe that there’s still a lot of work to be done to improve the food-service industry – we want to help build on this momentum, and help victims hold the perpetrators of abuse to account.
How we got here
In October of 2017, the words “Me Too” took on new meaning. Unless you were living under a rock, you know that that’s when The New York Times published an account of the allegations of sexual misconduct against one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood: Harvey Weinstein. It opened up an intense conversation about the culture of violence and harassment in the movie industry and beyond.
For the first time, people started to take women’s experiences seriously. We, as a nation, started to care that women are constantly degraded, held back, and told they can’t or shouldn’t take on powerful positions in the workplace.
“Me Too” became the shorthand for the movement. Fittingly, of course, since nearly all women have experienced sexual assault or harassment at some point in their lives. And as the movement gained steam in the cultural lexicon, it started to spread from Hollywood to other industries, too.
We began to hold men accountable for their inappropriate behavior. In media, Les Moonves was ousted from the top spot at CBS … powerful venture capital investor Chris Sacca retired from startup investing and ended his stint on the show “Shark Tank” … Senator Al Franken resigned from his position in the legislature. The list goes on...
You get the picture.
The restaurant industry is certainly among the many fields impacted by the Me Too Movement. Like celebrity chef Mario Batali, many of the perpetrators were ousted, or else faced consequences for their actions. (Though, of course, there are questions about how just those consequences were: In Batali’s case, for some inexplicable reason, he went with a simple “I’m sorry” and a recipe for cinnamon rolls as though that were enough to absolve him of his misdeeds. For the record: It’s not.)
A huge piece of the most serious harassment in the industry went largely unaddressed: the abuse experienced by service workers. According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) and Forward Together, the problem is extremely pervasive.
In their report “The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry”, ROC and Forward Together found that nearly 37 percent of all claims of sexual harassment come from the restaurant industry. That’s an astronomical statistic. And the “sexualized environment” in restaurants affects every relationship inside of it: irrespective of their gender, workers say that they have experienced harassment from supervisors, co-workers, and – crucially – coworkers.
Why sexual harassment continues in the industry
There are several reasons that the powerful change of the Me Too Movement didn’t reach all of the workers in the restaurant industry, according to the Harvard Business Review:
- – In the United States, men make up most of the top of the food chain. Almost three-quarters of restaurant servers are women, but most of the higher-paying roles, like managers and supervisors, are men. Women – particularly women of color – are also more commonly hired for low-paying server roles, like fast-food restaurants, while male servers dominate fine dining. The power differential can create an environment where women employees don’t feel comfortable speaking up – and where harassment is tolerated, ignored, or even normalized.
- – Restaurants have an extremely high turnover rate. The rate is almost 70 percent annually. Put another way, most employees likely treat restaurant work as temporary work, since more than two-thirds of employees are unlikely to stay in a gig for more than a year. Any targets of harassment would probably leave before making a formal complaint – and probably see the reporting process as too much work for what was supposed to be a temporary job.
- – It’s a ‘looks’ industry. It’s something the industry has in common with, say, flight attendants: they’re expected to follow specific strict grooming and uniform rules. Restaurant employees are expected to adhere to certain beauty standards. And while that can help make staff look like, well, staff – making them easily identifiable for customers – there are obvious downsides: that kind of looks-first culture enables managers and customers to justify sexual harassment. And research shows that it’s a lose-lose situation: women who are perceived to have used their looks to get ahead can be seen as “deserving” treatment that sexualizes them.
- –You’ve probably heard (or been told to live by) the adage, “the customer is always right.” Spoiler alert: they’re not always right. In fact, they’re some of the most likely of any group to perpetrate, with 76 percent of employees saying they’ve been harassed by a customer. Qualitative studies show that service employees face mistreatment from guests and customers daily – but that they often refrain from reporting the incidents. When workers do report the incidents, managers don’t have a great track record: they tend to downplay the incidents by ignoring the allegations or switching servers rather than confronting the customer.
- –Restaurant workers rely on tips to make most of their money. In many states, the typical restaurant worker officially makes something like $2.31 an hour … and relies on customers’ tips to get their final hourly rate up to the minimum wage. Legally, their employers are required to compensate them if they don’t meet that minimum wage requirement after tips… but for many servers, that’s not even close to their real-world experience. The Restaurant Opportunities Center United report mentioned earlier found that sexual harassment is significantly more common in states with sub-minimum wage. And the fact that employees rely on customers for this gigantic chunk of their wages means it’s not exactly safe to speak up when customers perpetrate harassment.
What you can do and how we can help
Those factors all contribute to a culture where inappropriate comments and harassment run rampant. Women are especially vulnerable to this abuse – nearly 90 percent of women in the industry say they’ve been harassed – but they’re not alone. A jaw-dropping 70 percent of men working in restaurants also report some form of sex harassment in the workplace.
But, folks, it’s 2020. Those workers should not feel like they have to stay silent. Sexual harassment is not acceptable – and it shouldn’t be an occupational hazard for anybody, much less the hardworking folks who are just trying to provide great experiences at some of the country’s favorite restaurants.
Advocates from across the industry have been working to change the culture and get laws passed that would protect workers in the future, but that doesn’t help people who’ve already been mistreated.
Here’s the good news: we can help. Sexual harassment and abuse are against the law. There are legal ramifications for the perpetrators of those crimes. Our lawyers are eager to help you hold those people accountable, whether it’s your manager or a big international corporation. We can even work on a percentage of the winnings – so if you’re a victim, you don’t have to be a certain age, come from a certain background, or have a big bank account to make things right. Give us a call now.