To Fight Harassment in Restaurants, We Must Start with Wages

Women working at casual dining restaurants earn just a few dollars an hour, so they are forced to tolerate inappropriate behavior—from lewd comments and groping to assault—in order to feed their families in tips. Here, SaruJayaraman proposes a path forward

restaurant work place harassment
Photo: Allison Dinner / Getty Images

Editor’s note: We recently launched Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to — Hunter Lewis, Editor-in-Chief, Food & Wine

Saru Jayaraman is President of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC-Berkeley, and author of Forked: A New Standard for American Dining. Co-founded by and Fekkak Mamdough, ROC United has nearly 25,000 worker members, more than 200 restaurant employer members and several thousand consumer members nationwide.

Amid an outpouring of women (and men) sharing their experiences of harassment in Hollywood, we in the restaurant industry are facing our own crisis. As the Washington Post reported this week, the industry’s worst-kept secret—a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and abuse—has reached a boiling point. Our industry must change to survive.

High-profile allegations against industry leaders like New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh are far from an exception to the rule. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United's research on sexual harassment in the restaurant industry shows that more than two-thirds of all women in the industry report harassment from management, customers and co-workers. More than half have feared for their safety at work. Women workers report that their managers encourage them to wear tighter clothing and show more skin to make more money in tips. Harassment is normalized as “kitchen talk,” and women workers who rely on tips for their income are forced to endure objectification and abuse at work as just part of the job.

Our research shows that this harassment can be traced largely to our industry’s wage system. With almost 13 million workers, the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing industries in America, but it is also the lowest paying. Every year, the U.S. Department of Labor puts out a list of the ten lowest paying jobs, and every year seven of the ten lowest paying jobs in America are restaurant jobs. What might be surprising to some of us is that four of those seven lowest paying jobs are tipped occupations, even when tips are accounted for. In 43 states, restaurant workers are paid a lower, tipped wage, some as low as the $2.13 federal tipped minimum wage.

Seventy percent of tipped workers in America are women, mostly women who work at casual dining restaurants like IHOP, Denny’s and Applebee’s. These women suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce even when tips are taken into account.

As women earning just a few dollars an hour from their employers, they are forced to tolerate inappropriate behavior—from lewd comments and groping to assault—in order to feed their families in tips. And this culture of objectification creates a hostile environment that leaves workers vulnerable to further abuse from coworkers and management. Unfortunately, our industry sets the standard for America; since half of all American women work in restaurants as their first job, they are introduced into a world of work in which sexual harassment is normalized and even encouraged in order to please the customer.

Fortunately, our industry has a clear solution that could be a model for other industries. Seven states, including California, have One Fair Wage. They have eliminated the lower minimum wage for tipped workers. These states enjoy thriving restaurant sales and growth—and the rate of sexual harassment at restaurants in these states is half that of states that still maintain the subminimum wage system. This is the greatest demonstrable reduction in sexual harassment of any initiative currently being proposed in any industry. In this way our industry, which is currently the single largest source of all sexual harassment claims in the U.S., is poised to actually become a model for reversing the culture of sexual harassment at work.

One Fair Wage is building support across the country. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced that he will advance One Fair Wage through legislative or administrative means in 2018, and ballot initiatives in Washington, D.C. and Michigan to establish One Fair Wage are gaining steam. D.C., Michigan, and New York could lead the way nationally toward a restaurant industry in which women workers are able support themselves and their loved ones through safe and dignified work.

The National Restaurant Association has long opposed One Fair Wage, predicting that the industry will collapse if it must pay workers the full minimum wage, but the restaurant industries in the states and cities that have eliminated the subminimum tipped wage are thriving. And there are hundreds of restaurants across America, including industry leaders like Danny Meyer, Tom Colicchio, Paul Saginaw, co-founder of Zingerman’s Restaurants and hundreds of smaller restaurants across the country, which have voiced their support for change and have made those changes in their own restaurants. We have worked with these employers to show that One Fair Wage ultimately benefits the bottom line: it will not only cut sexual harassment in half, it will also cut employee turnover in half, as well as increase worker productivity and loyalty.

The restaurant industry is experiencing an existential crisis. Beyond the industry epidemic of sexual harassment and our now national conversation on workplace abuse, we are also facing the worst labor shortage in the history of the industry, rising food prices and rents, and so much more. Investing in workers through One Fair Wage will reduce sexual harassment, allow us to retain good workers and increase customer satisfaction. Rather than remaining the industry with the lowest wages and the worst record of sexual harassment, let us be the industry that sets the model for embracing change and eradicating the mistreatment of our sisters, mothers and daughters nationwide.

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