Tipped-wage workers such as waitresses endure much higher levels of sexual harassment than other workers, often for poverty-level wages. David Zalubowski/AP

Where working for tips means the customer is always right, waitresses, bartenders, and other tipped-wage workers endure stunning rates of sexual harassment.

In 2009, Michael Lynn, a professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University, published a study that found that waitresses in the U.S. with blond hair, smaller waists, and larger breasts received higher tips than women without those traits. His findings circulated among restaurant hiring teams and managers eager to jack up sales in the $799 billion restaurant industry. Perhaps no other industry rivals Hollywood in profits made by men off of women’s beauty, charm, and sex appeal—and the ramifications should be obvious to anyone keeping up with the current news cycle.

Like Hollywood actresses, but considerably worse off financially, waitresses endure rampant sexual harassment with impunity. A whopping 90 percent of women in the U.S. restaurant industry report being subject to unwanted sexual advances at work, and more than half of women say these interactions occur weekly, according to a Restaurant Opportunities Center report from 2014. For the restaurant industry—which employs 10 percent of the overall U.S. workforce and where women outnumber men by two to one—the magnitude of sexual harassment is difficult to fathom.

But we do know a few things. Nearly 40 percent of all sexual harassment claims made to the federal agency that deals with workplace discrimination originate with misconduct in the restaurant industry. Between 2004 and 2014, restaurants in 15 states surrendered $10 million in damages and settlements for sexual harassment cases. Cracker Barrel, Outback Steak House, and Cheesecake Factory were among the familiar chains with cases filed against them.

Routine exchanges—taking an order, refilling a wine glass, picking up a fallen napkin or utensil, and dropping off the bill—can quickly devolve into sexual-harassment nightmares. That’s practically by design. Dianne Avery, a retired State University of New York at Buffalo law professor who has written extensively about labor and sexual harassment, says that tipped wages put the burden on customers rather than employers to pay a server’s wages. This in turn creates a proprietary relationship between paying customers, who are frequently men, and servers, who are far more likely to be women. “This is the exchange: ‘I’m getting to look at you and talk to you, and I’m paying for it,’” Avery says.

Tipped restaurant workers—a group dominated by servers, but also sometimes including hosts, dishwashers, and bussers—face more unwanted sexual encounters than non-tipped restaurant workers, such as chefs, line cooks, supervisors, and managers, the Restaurant Opportunities Center found. These same employees face higher rates of harassment from co-workers, managers, and, of course, customers. (Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore was allegedly one such habitual customer, according to numerous reports from former mall and restaurant workers in Gadsden, Alabama.)  The fact that managers and co-workers harass tipped workers reflects the gendered division of labor in restaurants. Men dominate non-tipped kitchen and managerial positions; women wait tables.  

“In an industry where the majority of the workers who receive tips are female, you create a power dynamic [between men and women] and room for sexual harassment,” says Catherine Barnett, director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York. “Questionable behavior and interactions are condoned.”

As in the film industry, sexual harassment in restaurants takes on its own industry-specific rituals. The Restaurant Opportunities Center—which boasts 18,000 restaurant workers in 10 cities, including Chicago, Boston, and New Orleans—found that the most common forms of sexual harassment include “sexual teasing,” “deliberate touching, cornering, leaning over, pinching,” and “pressure for dates.” More serious offenses like groping, exposing genitals, and rape are a part of the repertoire as well. Servers at downscale chains and diners such as Olive Garden or Waffle House, where tips are lower and women tend to outnumber men, likely face higher rates of sexual harassment than they do at high-end establishments, Avery says.

To make matters worse, waitresses in the 19 states—concentrated around the South and Midwest, where the tipped minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13 an hour since 1991—are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment as their counterparts in the seven states, including California and Minnesota, that have banned the tipped minimum wage and replaced it with the standard minimum wage.

The legacy of the tipped minimum wage dates back to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1966, which secured landmark labor rights including the 40-hour workweek and paid overtime. The same law also legalized a subminimum wage for tipped workers. Today, servers in the states that continue to follow the $2.13 an hour tipped minimum wage earn a living almost entirely dependent on tips after taxes. Waitresses in these states are three times more likely than workers in non-tipped wage states to be asked by management to sexualize their behavior and appearance for guests. Adding injury to insult, these same women are significantly more likely to live below the poverty line.

Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist who studies the minimum wage at the University of California-Berkeley, says that the tipped wage system has been kept in place for decades thanks to powerful restaurant lobbyists, including the National Restaurant Association—known in the industry as the “other NRA.” One-time Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain previously served as its CEO. “I mean [what restaurant] wouldn’t want customers to pay the bulk of your wage bill?” Allegretto says.

“The economic argument that you hear from a lot of restaurants is that if you get rid of the tipped wages, you're going to destroy the restaurant industry,” she says. “But clearly, that's not true, because the restaurant industry is booming in many states that eliminated tipped wages.”

In Michigan, women make up nearly 80 percent of the tipped workforce, and the tipped minimum wage sits at a paltry $3.38 an hour. Alicia Renee Farris, a labor organizer in Detroit, and a leader in the Restaurant Opportunities Center’s campaign to eliminate the tipped minimum wage in Michigan, says sexual harassment is a growing issue in the state’s “thriving” restaurant industry. To make a living, Farris says, Michigan waitresses have to “subject themselves to different kinds of ‘behavior’ in order to get tips.” Statewide, more than 20 percent of waitresses live in poverty.

Despite the plight of women working in the service industry, most labor groups in the restaurant industry (including the Restaurant Opportunities Center) have been reluctant to come out in favor of banning tips entirely, since most servers rely on tips as their primary source of income. Instead, many reformers would prefer to phase out the tipped minimum wage in favor of a living wage. Tipped workers face a poverty rate nearly double that of non-tipped workers, and politicians like Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Patty Murray of Washington have caught on. In April 2017, the senators introduced a bill that would phase out the tipped minimum wage, raising it to a $15 an hour by 2024—though a Republican-majority Congress makes the passage of this bill unlikely.

Saru Jayaraman, a labor activist and founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, says that “the culture of sexual assault in the restaurant industry isn’t an accident,” but a direct outcome of “the subminimum wage and the fact that the majority of people living off tips are women.”

“Countless young women are introduced to the world of work through the restaurant industry,” Jayaraman says, “and they go on to be more likely to accept forms of sexual harassment as ‘just part of the job.’”

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