Parker Molloy
October 07, 2014 3:09 pm

A new report suggests that two-thirds of all female employees in the restaurant industry have been sexually harassed by managers, and more than half of those women claim that it happens at least weekly. The study, developed by the  and released on Tuesday, paints a grim picture of what it’s like to be a woman working in the food service industry.

While just seven percent of women work in the food service industry, it’s the source of 37 percent of all Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sexual harassment claims. We all knew it was a problem, but these numbers suggest it’s a problem that requires immediate action.

Last month, bartender Laura Ramadei took a stand, penning a powerful Facebook note in response to an abusive, misogynistic customer. Her note resonated with a large crowd, quickly accumulating more than 10,000 likes and 6,000 shares. “At a bar,” she writes. “It is impossible to ignore the fact that misogyny is alive and well.”

So why is this industry rife with such blatant sexism and harassment? Tips are at the heart of the issue, according to ROC.

Their study uncovered the obvious: the more employees are reliant on tips to pay their bills, the more likely they are to deal with sexual harassment from customers, co-workers, and management. Pushing back on a handsy customer could cost them their pay. Confronting managers about poor treatment could result in professional retaliation in the form of reduced hours or not being scheduled during peak hours. Each of these factors directly impact the bottom line of an employee who works for tips. More than half of all tipped workers reported that their reliance on tipped income drove them to “tolerate inappropriate behaviors that made them nervous or uncomfortable.”

“If I tell my manager to get rid of a customer, that’s revenue taken directly out of our pocket,” Tiffany Kirk, a 25-year-old server and industry veteran, told ThinkProgress.

The current minimum wage for tipped employees in the United States is just $2.13 per hour. Sure, that’s the pre-tip wage, ROC’s report reveals that “the median wage for tipped workers hovers around $9 an hour including tips.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the mean wage just slightly higher than ROC’s median wage, at $10.04 per hour. BLS lists the median annual income for restaurant servers at $18,590. For a single mother of two, that places her below the poverty line.

So what can we do to put an end to the low-paying, abusive situation in which these women find themselves? ROC has some suggestions:

“Sexual harassment is endemic across the restaurant industry,” the report concludes. “Sexual harassment impacts both men and women restaurant workers, but has a greater impact on women, and its greatest impact on women in tipped occupations in states that have a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 per hour for tipped workers. Although differences in levels of the tipped sub-minimum wage likely play a role, the entire system of allowing employers to pay a sub-minimum wage to tipped workers and forcing women to depend on the largesse of customer tips, appears to create an environment where women are undervalued not only by customers, but also by management, as well as by their co-workers.”

ROC urges lawmakers to take action by supporting One Fair Wage, the Fair Employment Protection Act, the Healthy Families Act, and the Fair Scheduling Act legislative initiatives. They suggest pushing employers to toughen up their in-house anti-harassment policies and the institution of gender-free uniforms, and for workers to know their rights and to organize with one another.

During a focus group of women workers, one solution proposed was having a on-site advocate who could voice employee concerns about harassment without fear of retaliation. For now, the report suggests, workers need to know their rights, and patrons need to speak up, as well, if they spot a restaurant that doesn’t protect against sexual harassment.

Even if you don’t work in the industry, you probably go to restaurants as a patron. As they say, if you see something (awful or unjust), say something. We’re all in this together.

(Image via)

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