The #MeToo movement took to the halls of Congress on Monday to shine a light on a lesser-known sector plagued by widespread sexual misconduct: the service industry.
The bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues hosted a hearing Monday, titled, “Beyond the Headlines: Combating Service Sector Sexual Harassment in the Age of #MeToo,” in which experts hammered home how, as the EEOC previously reported, accomodation and food services industries had the highest number of sexual harassment claims filed—making up roughly 14 percent of all allegations filed throughout all industries.
Committee co-chairs Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) and Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN), along with other members of the caucus, heard the expert testimony of representatives from the EEOC, Association of Flight Attendants, violence prevention mentors, and labor-relations experts.
“We picked the service industry because it’s probably where... so much abuse is suffered by these workers and they’re working to keep their jobs,” Rep. Frankel told Roll Call. “They don’t have the power of let’s say, one of these famous actresses.”
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants—which represents United, Spirit, and Alaska Airlines—called for a task force to study guidelines in responding to harassment and assault aboard commercial airlines; and to help develop standards for incident reporting.
“Even today, we are called pet names, patted on the rear when a passenger wants our attention, cornered in the back galley and asked about our ‘hottest’ layover, and subjected to incidents not fit for print,” said Nelson. Last week, The Daily Beast reported on a particularly gruesome allegation in which a female Alaska Airlines co-pilot alleged that her captain drugged and raped her between flights, and that the company failed to hold him accountable.
The caucus also heard the stories of several women in the service industry, who shared their stories of sexual assault in the workplace.
One woman, Roushaunda, has worked in the Chicago hospitality industry for 17 years and currently works as a bartender. While serving four businessmen drinks, one of them “slapped [her] on [her] rear end,” but she did not report the assault to management.
“I was afraid if I reported it, the manager would say I wasn’t tough enough and get rid of me. I needed to keep the job. It made me feel small and alone,” she explained. “At the time, I thought I just had to learn how to deal with the harassment.”
She spoke in favor of a landmark ordinance in Chicago, called “Hands Off Pants On,” which passed in October. That rule mandates hotels to provide a “panic button” to hotel employees who work on hotel property without other employees present, requires a written anti-harassment policy, and bars hotels from retaliating against a worker for reporting harassment or assault.
The rule addresses a problem that plagues mostly women and immigrants working in the hotel industry: a reported 58 percent of all hotel workers had experienced sexual harassment or assault, and 49 percent of employees have had “guest(s) expose themselves, flash them, or answer the door naked,” according to a 2016 survey of the Chicago hospitality workers.
“I am proud of what we have accomplished in Chicago,” Roushaunda said. She also said the passing of the ordinance was “a powerful, much needed message to women in hospitality that we are being seen and heard. Strong enforcement of this ordinance is critical.”
Marie Billiel talked about the five years of assault she experienced while working at the Route 9 Diner in Massachusetts. She alleged that she was harassed on a “near-daily basis,” with cooks pushing her into the walk-in freezer and being forcibly kissed on the neck by another.
“My day-to-day life at this diner was punctuated with whistles, persistent requests for dates, and lewd comments about my body,” Billiel said in witness testimony. “Often, the cooks would grab and try to lick my hand as I attempted to take and deliver plates to my customers.”
In 2016, Route 9 Diner paid a $200,000 penalty for a “decade-long pattern of sexual harassment of female employees,” which included “physical harm, emotional distress and loss of tips and wages.” Most of the penalty was paid to ten women who were harassed at the diner, Billiel noted.
The lawsuit outlined cooks grabbing the waists of waitresses from behind, hitting servers’ behinds with towels, and watching pornographic videos on cellphones and laptops at work. Managers also verbally abused female employees.
“Management did nothing to protect us. No one was ever disciplined or fired... When I refused sexual advances from a particular manager, he sat very few customers in my section, knowingly hurting my income. We were told over and over that we were expendable,” said Billiel.
She continued: “The [lawsuit] process was long and painful. It’s not reasonable to assume everyone has the resources to choose this path. The solution to the issues we face isn’t for everyone to pursue litigation. The solution is to eliminate the system that allows them.”
The caucus said it hopes to take the expert testimony personal experiences voiced at the hearing to change workplace cultures within the service industry nationwide.
“This bipartisan hearing was shocking and sad, as it put a spotlight on what has been a dark secret in our workplaces, often preventing women from reaching their full economic potential,” Rep. Frankel told The Daily Beast.
“The testimony we heard today gave us even more impetus to seek out anti-harassment policies that are working in the public and private workplace and find out what, if any, changes we need in our laws.”