Restaurant Workers, Sexual Harassment, and the Pandemic

Employment Law News | July 1, 2021

Sexual harassment refers to any act of harassment based on a person’s sex. These actions may include unwelcome sexual advances, offensive comments, requests for inappropriate favors, or other sexually-charged acts of physical or verbal harassment.

For restaurant workers, sexual harassment is especially prevalent—and recent trends suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic may be exacerbating these events. Sexual harassment is never acceptable, and if you experience harassment on the job, you may have options for legal action.

 Link Between Tips and Harassment

According to the non-profit organization One Fair Wage, more than 70 percent of women who work as servers, bartenders, and other food industry positions have experienced sexual harassment. This harassment may come from employers, coworkers, and customers. For workers who receive tips, sexual harassment is even more prevalent.

Tipped workers who receive a subminimum wage, or earn less per hour than the state’s minimum wage and rely on tips to make up the difference, experience a higher rate of sexual harassment than their non-tipped coworkers. According to the organization’s research, 76 percent of tipped workers experience sexual harassment versus 52 percent of non-tipped counterparts.

Since these workers rely on tips to survive, they often face unwanted sexual comments and advances from customers who expect them to comply in order to receive a higher tip. Because these restaurant employees have to interact more directly with customers compared to non-tipped workers, they are also more likely to encounter inappropriate situations during their daily job activities.

COVID-19 Has Made Harassment Worse

Data from One Fair Wage also shows that sexual harassment has increased for restaurant workers, especially for tipped employees. Over 40 percent of food service workers have noticed an increase in the level of sexual harassment that they have experienced from customers. Many of the survey respondents attribute this harassment to masks.

In a disturbing report from One Fair Wage titled “Take Off Your Mask So I Know How Much to Tip You,” male customers have indicated that they intend to base their tips to restaurant workers on the physical appearance of female servers. As the title suggests, these customers demanded that workers remove their protective gear to assess their attractiveness. Since these servers often make subminimum wage and rely on tips to support themselves and their families, this behavior leads to a dangerous and uncomfortable scenario.

Additionally, workers surveyed in this report experienced high levels of harassment by asking customers to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols. More than 80 percent of food service workers reported experiencing or witnessing hostile and aggressive behavior from customers when attempting to enforce social distancing or mask wearing. Many of these comments and actions were sexual in nature.

What to Do if You’re Sexually Harassed at Work

If you are sexually harassed while working at a restaurant job, it is important to stand up for your rights. When you encounter an abusive customer, document the interaction and speak to a trusted supervisor as soon as possible. If you are experiencing sexual harassment from a coworker or manager, review your organization’s sexual harassment policy and report the event to a human resources representative.

In many situations, these options are not viable and result in retaliation. Remember, it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for reporting sexual harassment. In these cases, you could file an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against your employer. Contact a New York employment attorney as soon as possible to represent you in your complaint and hold your workplace accountable for an unsafe environment.