Widespread Sexual Harassment & Low Wages in the Restaurant Industry

In a recent New York Times article, opinion writer and University of Nevada instructor Brittany Bronson shared her personal experiences with sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, which is rampant among tip-earning service workers such as waiters, bartenders, expeditors, busboys, and hosts. Her personal story corroborates a report published last fall which found that workers earning the tipped minimum wage were twice as likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace than those making standard minimum wage. According to the report, restaurant workers who live off tips are uniquely vulnerable to these exploitative and illegal practices because their base rate of pay is so low that they must endure unwanted sexual behavior and policies in order to collect their tips.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is considered an acceptable risk of employment among service workers. As Bronson puts it, “When I find a remark disgusting, or have my hands, shoulders and hips held for uncomfortably long periods of time by men I don’t know, I have to suppress my natural reaction. I try to ignore it, or feign amusement, all for the sake of the guest’s experience, my job security, and the chance of a good tip. It’s easy to have ideals, but reconciling them with the need to pay rent is a more difficult task in a town with few professional opportunities.”

Of the 50 states, 43 allow employers to pay below minimum wage before tips, leaving employees dependent on their client or guest for subsistence wages. The United States is the only industrialized democracy with a two-tiered minimum wage. However, New York Governor Cuomo appointed a new wage board to investigate increasing the wages of tipped workers – the current tipped minimum wage in New York state is just $5 an hour. There are roughly 230,000 tipped workers in the state and three-quarters of them work in the restaurant & hospitality industry.

Employees can and should take action into their own hands. If harassment goes ignored or even encouraged by your employer, there are ways an attorney can help. The restaurant industry, more than any other industry, is deeply resistant to compliance with labor and employment laws and regulations, and violations of the law can range from wage and hour violations relating to pay, like unpaid overtime or illegal tip pooling (management cannot participate in or otherwise dip into tipped workers’ tip pool), in addition to sexual discrimination, plus retaliation for reporting paycheck or wage problems or discrimination at work. Whether or not you have voiced a complaint, and regardless of the industry you may work in, institutionalized harassment and discrimination in the workplace is reprehensible and should be punished.