New Report Exposes Widespread Nature of Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

The restaurant industry is one of the largest and the fastest growing economic sectors in the country. According to a new report, it is also one of the industries most rife with sexual harassment. The report, The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry, authored by Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) and Forward Together, shines a light on both the extent of the problem and its sources.

The frequency of sexual harassment of women is especially common within the restaurant industry, according to the report. Fully 37% of all sexual harassment complaints that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receives are from employees in the restaurant business, despite the fact that only 7% of all women in the workplace are employed in that industry.

The number of EEOC complaints may still not provide an accurate illustration of the extent of the problem of sexual harassment in the industry, since many forms of sexual harassment are dismissed as “kitchen talk,” meaning a type of behavior that is too often viewed as normal within the industry, leaving victims hesitant to report it. 90% of women employees surveyed by ROC United reported receiving bothersome harassment from customers. Of the women who reported being victimized by harassment, more than 50% stated that the harassment occurred at least weekly.

Current State of Labor Laws Worsens Problem

One of the factors that has allowed this widespread problem to survive and flourish is the state of minimum wage laws applicable to most restaurant workers. In 1991, the federal government raised the minimum wage from $3.80 to $4.25, and the minimum wage for workers who receive tips, such as most restaurant servers, rose to 1/2 that amount, or $2.13. Today, the minimum wage for most workers is $7.25, having risen most recently in 2009, up from $6.55. For workers who receive tips, the federal minimum wage remains the same as it was nearly a quarter-century ago, at $2.13. Some jurisdictions have higher minimum wages for tipped workers set through state laws.

Many tipped restaurant workers in states with a $2.13 minimum wage, most of whom are women, are assigned so few hours each week that their wages cover nothing more than the taxes they owe, meaning that their true take-home pay is comprised solely of the tips they obtain. This scenario provides fertile ground for sexual harassment. According to the ROC United report, female tipped employees in states with a $2.13 minimum were three times as likely to be instructed by their managers to alter their attire to make it “sexier” than comparable workers in states with higher minimums. The report also showed that non-tipped female employees, tipped male employees, and non-tipped male employees in $2.13 minimum states reported higher incidences of sexual harassment than their counterparts in states with higher minimum wages.

This state of affairs helps to explain why sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, even with its high number of reported incidents, is likely underreported to a significant degree. Many employees surveyed by ROC United said they experienced harassing behavior but refused to act on it, instead ignoring or tolerating it out of fear. They feared that pursuing a report of the harassment would trigger public humiliation, a reduction in hours, less desirable shifts (along with the inevitable reduction in tips on which they rely), or even termination of their employment.

If you work in the restaurant industry and have suffered harassing behavior from co-workers, supervisors or customers, you may have decided just to “put up with” it, but you should not have to do that. Talk to the New York sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Our skilled and hardworking attorneys represent the rights of workers in New York City and surrounding areas, including helping workers pursue claims related to sexual harassment in the workplace. We practice at the municipal, state, and federal levels.

To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More blog posts:

Former Maitre D’ at Manhattan Restaurant Sues for Sexual Harassment, Retaliation, New York Employment Attorney Blog, July 15, 2015

How the EEOC Defines Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, New York Employment Attorney Blog, Feb. 18, 2015

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