The COVID-19 pandemic has caused economic turmoil all over the country and the world. It has hurt restaurants more than many other kinds of businesses. The impact goes beyond the revenues of the restaurants themselves. Even without a pandemic, New York City sexual harassment lawyers see a substantial number of claims from workers in restaurants who rely on tips for much of their income. The problem seems only to have gotten worse when restaurants have been open this year. A report issued in early December by One Fair Wage (OFW), an organization that advocates for reform of wage laws affecting tipped employees, found substantial decreases in tips received by servers during the pandemic, along with an increase in incidents of sexual harassment. These two issues are closely related. Tipped workers’ reliance on tip income makes them particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment by supervisors, co-workers, and customers.
Laws like the New York City Human Rights Law, the New York State Human Rights Law, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 view sexual harassment as a type of unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex. Sexual harassment can occur in two general forms, both of which are unfortunately common in the restaurant industry. Quid pro quo sexual harassment takes place when a supervisor, manager, or another person with authority over an employee makes submission to sexual demands of some sort a condition of their employment. The other type involves pervasive or severe conduct of a sexual nature that is unwelcome and which a reasonable person would find to create a hostile work environment.
Under federal law and many state laws, including New York, employers are not obligated to pay tipped workers as much in cash wages as other employees. Instead, they must pay a lower minimum cash wage, with a “tip credit” for the difference between that amount and the regular minimum wage. Servers in New York City have a higher minimum wage than servers in the rest of the state, and state law sets a higher minimum wage than federal law.