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Restaurant Workers are Seeing More Sexual Harassment During the Pandemic

January 6th, 2021

Service industry workers often depend on their tips to make ends meet, and when the economy is not ideal, patrons may be less likely to leave the standard 15 to 20 percent. Many restaurant employees have seen their tips decline this year, and according to a new report, sexual harassment during the pandemic has increased.

One Fair Wage recently reported on this ongoing situation. This group is a national organization dedicated to ending subminimum wages in the United States. One Fair Wage also strives to increase sustainable working conditions for employees within the service sector. One proposed policy is to have employers pay full minimum wages, plus fair tips. The organization’s recent survey interviewed approximately 1,675 restaurant workers from Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. One Fair Wages found that over 80 percent of these workers have seen their tips decrease, while 40 percent have experienced more sexual harassment than in the past.

What are Restaurant Workers Experiencing?

The report by One Fair Wage discusses comments by costumers to women workers in the restaurant industry. Many women described how male customers were asking them to remove their masks before tipping. What was the reason for this request? The male customers wanted to judge the female employees’ appearances before deciding how much to tip them.

Service workers who are seeing less Coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions at work have had even worse experiences; complaints have been coming from many different parts of the United States. Respondents were also worried about their health and safety when patrons were not willing to adhere to safety protocols. More than 50 percent of those surveyed claimed that when they asked customers to follow the protocols, such as putting on their masks, the tips were cut.

The surveyed workers believe that during the pandemic, people in general have become more hostile. One bartender claimed to be close to having a nervous breakdown after dealing with scores of angry customers. One Fair Wage wrote that if restaurants were doing better jobs at requiring customers to follow health protocols, this responsibility would not fall on their workers’ shoulders. The survey also states the following:

  • Approximately 44 percent of those surveyed knew that at least one of their co-workers had contracted COVID-19.
  • Fifty-eight percent felt uncertain about enforcing safety protocols because they worried about their tips.
  • More than 80 percent of the respondents stated that they had been less than six feet away from one or more people who were not wearing masks during work shifts.

What Contributes to Workplace Sexual Harassment?

The federal subminimum wage permits employers, like restaurants, to pay tipped workers as low as $2.13 an hour. There are seven states that have eliminated this standard, and One Fair Wage states that workers from these states report 50 percent lower rates of sexual harassment than workers who receive federal subminimum wage. This could be due to the fact that workers who earn higher wages do not have to rely so much on customer tips and may be more willing to speak up. The abuse can also come from co-workers and managers, but this particular study focused on abuse from customers. One server felt that when a patron asked them to take the mask off, that patron was making them vulnerable to catching the virus.

The National Restaurant Association released a statement saying that they condemned sexual harassment, adding that they are confronting the issue through workplace training. They also stated that the agency was open to discussing industry wage levels, as well as any impacts the changes might have on workers, restaurant operators, and the economy.

Protection Against Workplace Sexual Harassment

There are state and federal laws in place to guard employees from being sexually harassed when they are at work. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there are two categories of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo is when a person of authority, like a manager, attempts to force a subordinate to face sexual harassment in order to keep a job or benefits, such as a raise or promotion. This can be a one-time occurrence or a continuing situation perpetrated by the harasser.

In some cases, a victim of sexual harassment is subjected to unwelcome behaviors that are severe or persistent enough to create a work environment that is offensive, uncomfortable, aggressive, and intimidating. A court will consider how often the conduct occurred and if it was hostile, physical, or verbal. In some instances, there is more than one abuser, and there can be more than one victim. A court will also want to know if the alleged harasser was a supervisor or a colleague.

According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, which creates an offensive and hostile work environment. Sexual harassment is widespread in workplaces and can include many types of invasive behaviors, such as inappropriate text messages.

How can Workers Fight Against Sexual Harassment?

A victim can review their employer’s handbook or speak to the Human Resources (HR) department to learn more about the policies in place regarding sexual harassment. Speaking to a trusted supervisor can also help. In all cases, though, it is important to document everything that has happened, including the acts of abuse to the supervisors and HR ’s responses. Speaking up to the abuser can also be effective, especially if the harasser is not aware about their offensive behaviors. It is beneficial to have a written conversation with the abuser, such as an email.

For service industry workers who rely on tips, standing up to abusive customers can be more complicated. As previously mentioned, these workers face the risk of not getting tipped after they speak up. Speaking to management might help in some cases, and another option is to contact the EEOC to file a harassment claim. This should only be done after informing the employer about the situation and having solid documentation about what occurred.

It is important to note that workplace retaliation is forbidden. Employers are not permitted to retaliate against workers who file sexual harassment complaints. Before making a complaint, an employee can request copies of their personnel files. This can serve as proof that an employee was a good worker before making the complaint, and it could show that the employer retaliated afterwards by demoting or firing the employee.

Another important strategy is to contact a lawyer. A lawyer will protect the rights of the victim and ensure they file a complaint correctly and completely. Additionally, a lawyer will help with compensation, such as back pay.

Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. Protect Sexually Harassed Employees

You do not have to put up with workplace sexual harassment; there are laws designed to protect employees from offensive behaviors. Our compassionate Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. are ready to help. For a free consultation, contact us online or call us at 215-569-1999. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients throughout South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.

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