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Women Waiting Tables Get Harassed Constantly, And We Know How To Stop It

Half of all American women work at a restaurant at some point in their lives, and there's a proven way to reduce the industry's shocking level of harassment.

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What can we do about the epidemic of sexual harassment in American workplaces? Revealing the behavior of the worst, most predatory men in positions of power has created a moment of awareness and opportunity. What’s needed next is something even harder: real change that alters the balance of power for working women.

But what can we change? Here’s my proposal: take aim at the industry where over half of all American women work at some point in their lives — an industry with startlingly high rates of sexual assault, and a structure that makes its workers unusually vulnerable to mistreatment. Do something about America’s restaurants.

As the job that introduces so many young women to the world of work — more than a third of women say their first job was in a restaurant — the industry doesn’t just normalize sexual harassment as a workplace reality. Its unique pay system actively coerces young women to quietly accept mistreatment as a condition of getting paid. So many professionals who waited tables in their youth – including many high-profile women now sharing their stories of harassment and assault – first experienced harassment as a necessary evil of working life during their restaurant days.

This can be traced in large part to the pay system, where servers rely on tips from customers just to earn minimum wage. In 43 US states, employers are allowed to pay restaurant workers a wage far below the standard state or federal minimum, provided they make the rest up in tips.

With pay as low as $2.13 an hour — a federal minimum for those earning tips — women must tolerate bad, often illegal behavior from the customers who they depend on for most of their take-home pay. Too often, when a customer crosses the line, women must choose between speaking up or getting paid: defend yourself or feed your family.

That choice doesn’t go un-noticed by their colleagues and bosses, who often have their own predatory instinct for spotting vulnerable women.

The result is shocking. My organization, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, has studied sexual harassment in the industry and found that over two-thirds of all women report harassment from all sides — employers, patrons, and even fellow staff. Over half have feared for their safety at work. Altogether, it is clear that the worst kept secret in the restaurant industry is its sexual harassment crisis.

The good news is, there is a straightforward reform that has already been proven to significantly reduce the problem. In seven states including California, restaurants must pay their staff the full minimum wage, just like any other worker, with the ability to still collect tips on top. The rate of sexual harassment at restaurants in these states, our surveys have found, is half that of states that still maintain the sub-minimum wage system.

This makes sense: women who are guaranteed a stable income besides their tips can afford to push back against unwelcome advances. And while industry lobbyists insist such pay changes kill businesses and jobs, restaurant sales and growth in these states continue to soar, and jobs abound.

If you want to support a concrete, achievable reform that would improve the workplace for millions of women, this is it: call on all states, and Congress, to pass what we call One Fair Wage – the elimination of the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. No other solution in any sector — not education and training on sexual harassment, nor litigation alone — has the demonstrated potential to so dramatically reduce sexual harassment.

While every move to hold predators accountable should be celebrated, such efforts have largely focused on the symptoms of an underlying power imbalance in our working lives. Identifying predatory men is good; we can also identify the economics of their power — and we can change it.

At the ROC we have been fighting for years to shift that power imbalance, and those fights are now at a critical juncture. The momentum and energy of the sexual harassment conversation could help tip the scales if new supporters join us: in Washington, DC and Michigan, ballot initiatives for 2018 establishing One Fair Wage are gaining steam.

In New York, Governor Cuomo’s Counsel has announced the Governor’s support for moving One Fair Wage, which can be advanced through a regulatory process. These are important opportunities to lead by example toward a restaurant industry where women are afforded the dignity, security, and justice they deserve.

Right now, restaurants epitomize the abuse faced by women everywhere, with a harassment culture that sets the tone for many people’s entire working lives. But they also can be the site of the first systemic victory to emerge from 2017’s moment of awakening — one that millions of women will benefit from for generations to come.

Saru Jayaraman is the President of ROC United, Director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC-Berkeley, and author of Forked: A New Standard for American Dining

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