The Alarming Reason Waitresses Have to Deal With so Much Sexual Harassment


The news: Grab the Tums, because this meal will give you heartburn: Roughly 90% of women working in the restaurant industry report an unnecessary side of sexual harassment.

Restaurant employees who work on tips are enduring an epidemic of sexual harassment in their workplaces. That's according to an alarming new study released Tuesday by the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United that said the industry is the "single-largest source of sexual-harassment charges" with the government.

The issues derive from tipped workers being paid a federal minimum wage of $2.13, a wage that hasn't changed in more than two decades. It's especially troubling for women, since they consist of more than two-thirds of the country's wait staff. 

Since the workers depend on tips to make a livable wage, they "must often tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers, coworkers and management," the report said.

The study: The survey, conducted this summer, queried nearly 700 workers in 38 states to "provide the most accurate picture to date of the rate and types of sexual harassment experienced by restaurant workers." 

Workers reported a high level of sexual harassment from coworkers (80%), customers (78%) and even management (66%). Cisgender men and women were roughly split, 50% and 47% respectively, in reporting "scary" or "unwanted" sexual behavior. Alarmingly, 60% of transgender workers felt the same way.

Although male and female employees regularly reported sexual harassment, it's the latter who "bore the brunt" of sexual harassment from their coworkers. Nearly 70% of women said they deal with sexual innuendo, like jokes and remarks, 39% of women said they were touched or pinched and 21% of women said they have been "inappropriately kissed or fondled."

ROC United

The issue of sexual harassment from coworkers especially affects female workers in the tipped wage sector. Women who live off the $2.13 an hour stipend (versus the full federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour) reported higher rates of sexual harassment. "Tipped workers experience a highly sexualized work environment that is specific to their occupations, and most of these experiences are borne by women," the report said.

ROC United

The solution? Erasing low wages in the tip system would reduce sexual harassment and be beneficial to women, according to Saru Jayaraman, the cofounder of ROC United and study's author.

"Women who have to live off of tips are subjected to the worst kind of sexual harassment," Jayaraman told USA Today, adding that restaurant wages should be the state's full minimum wage plus tips. The groundswell of support for fast food workers' wages never felt louder than this past year, when thousands of them marched through 100 cities to demand companies raise their wage to $15 an hour.

For its part, the National Restaurant Association, a restaurant industry business group, slammed the report and said it takes sexual harassment charges "very seriously." In a statement to CBS News, a spokeswoman said the "assertion from ROC that the tipped wage somehow increases sexual harassment by customers is another effort to confuse the reality of the tipped wage in the industry."

The group pointed to the fact that employers must make up the difference between the $2.13 and the federal minimum wage of $7.25 if tips do not cover it. Entry-level servers make around $16 an hour, the group said, though the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median hourly wage is $8.94.

Regardless, ROC United says the solution is in its "One Fair Wage" policy, which would eliminate the sub-minimum wage and give workers "greater personal agency, creating a safer and more equitable workplace," the report said.

A similar policy is in place in California. The result? Workers reported fewer instances of sexual harassment.