sexual harassment

‘I’ll Take Your Mask Off and Stick My Tongue Down Your Throat’

A restaurant server attends a customer.
Photo: SeventyFour/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sexual harassment is rife in the restaurant industry. And as it often goes, the most precarious workers — those who rely on tips, and who get paid as little as $2.13 an hour in direct wages — are also the most vulnerable. Two-thirds of tipped workers are women, and many are women of color. In addition to routine harassment from male co-workers and supervisors, they may also face unwanted advances and sexual comments from customers, with little hope for recourse: If they speak up, they could risk losing their tip, which for many doesn’t feel like an option.

The coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse, according to a bleak new report from One Fair Wage, a national coalition working to eradicate the sub-minimum wage. Of 1,675 tipped service workers who were surveyed, 41 percent said they had noticed an increase in the frequency of unwanted sexualized remarks from customers. Nearly 250 of them shared sexualized comments they’d experienced or heard; in many cases, they said, customers demanded that female servers remove their masks so they could judge their looks — the implication being they wouldn’t tip them unless they deemed them attractive.

“Pull that mask down so I can see if I want to take you home later,” reads one comment. Another person who participated in the survey wrote that a male customer cut a hole in the mouth of his mask, and asked one of her female coworkers “if she sat on his face, would he get COVID.” When workers tried to ignore or refuse unwelcome advances, many customers responded aggressively. “When I told him no, I’m not allowed [to remove my mask], he became more insistent, saying things like ‘No one will notice,’ or ‘I want to see the face of the girl that gave me the great service,’” reads one comment. Another wrote that she’s constantly called a “whore” for asking people to wear a mask.

The pandemic has put restaurant workers in a uniquely vulnerable position. Not only are they working in some of the riskiest environments for COVID transmission, but they’re also suffering from slow business and lower tips, exacerbating “the power dynamic between female tipped workers and male customers,” Saru Jayaraman, the executive director of One Fair Wage, told the Cut. “Women are being asked to risk exposure to the virus for the pleasure of male customers.”

Now that fewer people are dining out, tips are down a staggering 50 to 75 percent, according to the report. And those who regularly eat at restaurants may be less likely to respect public-health guidelines, Jayaraman noted. “The customers that are eating out more frequently during the pandemic are also likely to be more aggressive with regard to their attitudes toward wearing masks and social distancing — and thus aggressive with workers who try to protect themselves or enforce these rules.”

One Fair Wage’s message is clear: If state leaders want to combat the rampant sexual harassment within the industry, they must free workers from their dependence on tips by paying them their state’s full minimum wage, on top of which they can earn tips. In the seven states that have passed legislation eliminating the sub-minimum wage — which are sometimes referred to as “One Fair Wage states” — the rate of sexual harassment is as much as 50 percent lower, studies have found. Not only are managers are less likely to encourage female workers to wear revealing clothes to improve their tips, but workers also feel more empowered to push back against mistreatment.

At a time when workers are risking their lives by going to work, the issue has gained new urgency. “The subminimum wage for tipped workers was an issue of racial, economic and gender justice before the pandemic,” Jayaraman told the Cut. “With the pandemic, it has become an issue of life or death.”

‘Take Your Mask Off and Stick My Tongue Down Your Throat’