‘As A Waitress, I Brush Off Sexual Harassment Because I Just Want My Tip’

With restaurant workers in 22 states receiving the federal sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, many employees, especially women, have been forced to work in an environment rampant with sexual harassment.  In fact, the restaurant industry is the largest source of sexual harassment claims in the United States. While seven percent of women in the country work in the industry, they make up 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Center (EEOC). A new report by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United and Forward Together titled “The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry” exposes this epidemic.


The report states that women make up 52 percent of the restaurant industry’s 11 million workers. About two-thirds of these female workers are tipped workers, who often earn a sub-minimum wage and rely on customers for the rest of their wages.

The report writes that this creates “an environment in which a majority female workforce must please and curry favor with customers to earn a living. Depending on customers’ tips for wages discourages workers who might otherwise stand up for their rights and report unwanted sexual behaviors.”

The groups spoke to one New York server who explained why workers deal with inappropriate customer behavior.

“There is a lot of sexual harassment [but] you just kind of brush it off,” she said. “I just want my tip, I don’t want anything to mess up my tip.”

Sixty percent of women and transgender restaurant workers said sexual harassment was an uncomfortable aspect of work life, while 46 percent of men felt the same.  Yet, women workers who earn the sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment than those in states that pay the same minimum wage to all workers. They were also three times more likely to be told by management “to alter their appearance and wear ‘sexier,’ more revealing clothing.”

Management was one place where restaurant workers, men and women, reported high-levels of sexual harassment. Sixty-six percent of workers said they experienced sexual harassment from restaurant management—80 percent experienced it from co-workers, and 78 percent from customers.

A female server in Houston explained the behavior she witnessed from her management:

“[They] wouldn’t hire someone over thirty. … [They] would say, ‘I want this many servers, none of them fat, none of them ugly, I want them all to be 5’3.””

The report found that sexual harassment amongst co-workers was also part of the work culture. “Gendered power hierarchies are often in operation amongst staff in restaurants,” the report states. “Not only do women working in the industry tend to occupy jobs that are considered lower-status … but they are also distanced socially from men co-workers through practices such as revealing uniforms, … the expectation of flirting and sexual joking as part of their job, and the perception that the work women carry out is less skilled or valuable.”

The report found that 85 percent of restaurant workers reported a uniform policy, and 30 percent of reported men and women had different uniforms. Women felt three times more uncomfortable in their uniforms as men.

Compared to the harassment they faced with management and co-workers, women felt most uncomfortable with sexual harassment from customers. The report found that 90 percent of women reported being bothered by customer behavior. The report stated: “Two-thirds of women reported sexual teasing, jokes, remarks, or questions from customers, compared to only forty percent of men. Twice as many women received pressure for dates, and half-again as many women as men were deliberately touched or pinched by customers.”

The report emphasizes that the major culprit of this culture stems from the sub-minimum wage. It concludes:

“The entire system of allowing employers to pay a sub-minimum wage to tipped workers and forcing women to depend on the largesse of customer tips, appears to create an environment where women are undervalued not only by customers, but also by management, as well as by their co-workers.”

Tipped workers received the same minimum wage as other workers until 1966, when Congress allowed employees to pay them 50 percent of the minimum wage. They then bumped it up to $2.13 in 1991, and it has remained there ever since. Restaurant workers in 22 states receive this federal sub-minimum wage, while workers in 20 states receive between $2.13 and $5.00 based on state policy. Only eight states have chosen to pay tipped restaurant workers the full minimum wage.

“As a result,” the report states, “one-fifth of women working in the restaurant industry live below the poverty line, … compared to 40 percent of men in the restaurant industry, and 20 percent of women in other industries.”

Not only does this culture have negative financial effects, but it has psychological costs as well. The majority of women restaurant workers reported ignoring sexual harassment in fear of negative consequences. One worker who did report inappropriate customer behavior to her boss said he responded by saying: “Well, those people pay a lot of money for our services, and I mean, would it hurt to smile a little bit?”

This causes women to believe that harassment in the workplace is normal. The report found that 74 percent of women who previously worked at as a tipped restaurant worker tolerated inappropriate behaviors in their new workplace.

The report makes numerous recommendations, including the elimination of sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. The groups advocate for One Fair Wage for all restaurant workers as well as stronger anti-sexual harassment policies. You can read the entire report here.  They will also host a #NotOnMenu National Day of Action on Oct. 14, with a rally in New York City and several cities across the country.

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