Tips 103 – Sexual Harassment

Wage Basics

Tips 103 – Sexual Harassment

For workers who depend on tips, external factors such as race, age, and attractiveness become inextricably linked to income. It’s no surprise, then, that industries dependent on tipped wage-employees face extremely high rates of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are rampant in the restaurant industry, which has more sexual harassment claims than any other industry in America. 71% percent of restaurant servers are women, and of that group, 90% report experiencing some sort of sexual harassment at work. The subminimum tipped minimum wage is in large part to blame for this unacceptable state of affairs.

Many servers are forced to endure sexual assault or harassment from supervisors because, with such a reliance on tips, whoever sets their schedule has significant power over their earning potential. Imagine you’re a young, female server at a family restaurant. One night, your manager corners you in a back room and tries to kiss and grope you. What do you do? Do you quit and hope that you can survive on whatever meager savings you have until you can find a new job? Do you report him to the restaurant owner, knowing full well that the odds of him being fired are extremely slim and that in retaliation he could start scheduling you for weekday morning shifts instead of weekend night shifts, cutting your tipped income in half? Or do you just grit your teeth and bear it, and hope that he won’t try again? It’s easy to say that you wouldn’t put up with harassment or assault until your livelihood depends on it.

It’s not just supervisors – customers are a constant source of harassment for servers. Because servers are so reliant on tips, a customer in a restaurant has significant power over how much his server is going to earn while she’s working at his table. This creates a power dynamic in which customers feel empowered to say or do inappropriate things. Servers are then faced with the choice of sucking up and dealing with the harassment, or losing out on that table’s tips. 

And that’s assuming they even have the ability to make that choice. Because so many restaurants are customer-focused above all else, management will often side with customers over servers. They’ll ignore claims of sexual harassment, or at best, switch the server to another table. The restaurants that will immediately eject a customer for harassing a server are unfortunately more rare than you might think.

It’s terrible, but the way our laws work right now forces workers to accept this as a fact of life. Georgetown Law’s Center On Poverty and Inequality argued the two-tiered wage system “help[s] normalize inappropriate behavior (e.g. women feeling compelled to tolerate inappropriate comments or sexual behaviors) and disproportionately affect the most marginalized working people due to their financial status.”

Of course, these are large issues our politics and culture have wrestled with for many years, none of which will be completely remedied with a single legislative act. Our goal should be to actively dismantle these conditions, and correcting wage disparities is a progressive step we need to take.

NEXT: Tips 104 – Yes, People Will Still Tip →