Waitressing Is One of the Worst Jobs for Sexual Harassment

As every hostess knows, restaurants can be petri dishes for inappropriate behavior—and the lower the minimum wage, the higher the chance of harassment on the job.

10.08.14 9:45 AM ET

Female applicants at the Texas Roadhouse in Columbus, Ohio had to meet some very high standards. According to a lawsuit filed in September by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), would-be hostesses and waitresses at the Western-themed steak chain had to be young (preferably teens), attractive, and “screw-able” enough for the manager to take back to his apartment. Once a part of the crew, women working there were allegedly pressured for sexual favors in exchange for better conditions and promotions. Those that dared to complain were punished with bad shifts, demoted, or even fired.

Ricardo's Restaurant in Erie, Pennsylvania recently settled with the EEOC, which filed suit on behalf of Dorothy Hannah and other employees who claimed co-owner Peter West often touched them in an unwanted sexual way, commented on their bodies, and would ask them things like, “Did you get fucked today?" 

Owning a restaurant, the EEOC attorney admonished at the time, “is not a license to sexually harass employees.”

Why, then, does working in one almost guarantee a waitress, hostess, or bartender will be at the receiving end of such harassment?

That question is the focus of a new report on sexual harassment and the restaurant industry from Restaurant Opportunities Center, a national workers’ organization that advocates for an increase to the federal industry minimum wage. The group partnered with women’s group Forward Together to survey 688 current and former restaurant workers, and meet with more in focus groups in Houston, New York, New Orleans, and Washington, DC. The findings are unlikely to surprise anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant: sexual harassment is endemic in the industry.

Though entitled customers, like the hedge-fund manager shamed for playing grab-ass with a New York City bartender recently, are a major nuisance—59 percent of women and 50 percent of men reported sexual harassment from restaurant guests on at least a monthly basis—the most common source of both verbal and physical sexual harassment came from other coworkers, followed by management.

Three quarters (74 percent) of women complained of at least monthly sexual harassment from coworkers; two-thirds reported similar harassment from (66 percent) from management. For men, 58 percent reported sexual harassment from both coworkers and management.

Sexual harassment is a broad term that can cover everything from suggestive looks, to orders to dress sexier for work, to rape. The most common form of sexual harassment reported was verbal, usually sexual teasing, jokes, remarks, or questions like the ones allegedly asked of Dorothy Hannah at Ricardo’s concerning whether of not she had engaged in sexual intercourse that day. The EEOC defines it as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

What is it about restaurants that makes them magnets for this sort of behavior? In focus groups gathered by ROC United, workers noted that the restaurant industry is a highly sexualized one, and harassment, they said, just comes with the territory. But this acknowledgement hardly equates to comfort and it’s far from consent.

Though more than half of women said inappropriate sexual behavior was “normal,” nearly half called it “scary or unwanted” and 60 percent reported feeling uncomfortable because of it.

With such high rates of reported sexual harassment, the EEOC should be flooded with complaints. Though the EEOC was unable to provide data in time for publication, a 2011 review by MSNBC found almost 37 percent of all sexual harassment complaints to the federal enforcement agency came from restaurant industry workers. But the industry employs over 11 million people, and the EEOC received just 7,256 total complaints from all industries last year.

Perhaps the discrepancy is due to the fact that many victims of sexual harassment—in any industry—are reluctant to complain about the behavior. Humiliation, social pressure, fears of not being believed and retribution are all reasons that more women don’t come forward.

There’s also the issue that not all workers are opposed to actions that qualify as sexual harassment. It’s worth noting here that almost 30 percent of the restaurant workers surveyed called inappropriate sexual behavior “fun.” Research has shown this attitude is more prevalent in service occupations where women are hired and at times excel because of their physical appearance.

While acknowledging these factors, the study authors argue that the culpability for the sexual harassment status quo rests at the bottom line: the way employees earn their pay.

In 22 states, restaurant workers receive the federal industry minimum wage, which was set at $2.13 an hour in 1991 and has stayed put since. In 20 more states, the increased wage remains below $5.00 an hour. Many of these workers live in poverty, and the need to maintain a job, even if it pays poorly and inconsistently, might trump the need to feel comfortable and safe while at work.

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‘These two issues are intimately connected,” said Saru Jayaraman, Co-founder of ROC United and director of UC Berkeley Food and Labor Research Center, on a call with reporters.

The study found that women who worked in states with low minimum wages and were therefore more reliant on tips were twice as likely to experience sexual harassment as women in states where restaurant workers were paid the same minimum wage as workers in other industries.

The economic factor affects motivation. If the harassment comes from coworkers, some women feel they can stand up for themselves. “I have more freedom to be like, ‘okay, stop it’,” one woman in a Houston focus group said. “But when a guest does it, then I feel a lot more powerless. That’s when I’m like, man, that’s where my money’s coming from.”

These high levels of harassment get worse when one considers the large number of young people employed in the restaurant industry, many for whom the highly sexualized environment is their first exposure to the working world.

“We see a lot of sexual harassment of teens in this industry,” Christine Saah Nazer, a spokesperson for the EEOC told The Daily Beast in an email.

In August, Sal's Mexican Restaurant in Fresno, California, settled with a teen hostess who complained that her supervisor would grab at her, try to kiss her, and made hugs and back rubs a part of her job. She says she was forced to quit. 

“It teaches you and sets up the boundaries and reality of what you’ll be facing for the rest of your life as a working woman,” said Eve Ensler, playwright of “The Vagina Monologues” and longtime women’s activist who also spoke on the media call.

Tips as a system of payment, Ensler said, are “an indication of the way we feel about the value of women’s work itself.”

“It’s the idea that if you smile enough, if you bend enough, if you do all the things that we as arbitrary customers want you to do, then maybe we’ll tip you.”