9 in 10 Female Servers Say They've Been Sexually Harassed on The Job

April 14th 2015

Maria Myotte is the national communications coordinator for the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization representing more than 13,000 restaurant workers with a mission to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce. She recently spoke with ATTN: regarding her organization's advocacy goals as well as the Fight for 15

ATTN: What do you think has caused the unprecedented income inequality we see in America today? How is this specifically impacting restaurant workers?

MM: Income inequality is at record levels today because we’re living through a time of unprecedented corporate influence over of our political system. With nearly 11 million employees, the restaurant industry is one of the fast growing and largest economic sectors in the country, yet is producing the majority of the absolute lowest paying jobs in the country. Restaurant CEOs and top executives make more in a day than their workforce would make in a year, yet those same restaurant corporations -- Olive Garden, Applebee’s, McDonald’s, etc -- get away with paying wages so low that not only are workers struggling to get by, but they use public support programs at a rate way higher than other workforces. For tipped workers in particular -- the majority of whom are women -- the federal minimum wage is $2.13 an hour (since 1991!) and lower than the regular minimum wage in 43 states. They use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the US workforce and are three-times as likely to live in poverty. That’s not an accident, it’s a direct result of the National Restaurant Association’s aggressive lobby tactics that keep people in poverty and exploit public support programs as corporate subsidies.

That’s why on Wednesday, 4/15, the National Restaurant Association’s annual lobby day, ROC members are heading to D.C. call on our elected officials to stop taking the Other NRA’s corporate cash!

ATTN: How do we make the system more equitable? What are your recommendations for your constituents -- the 10 million restaurant workers who support the food industry?

MM: Know your rights and join ROC! We are living through an extraordinary time right now of workers across industries rising up to demand fair wages and respect at work. Over the last five years, ROC has won 13 workplace justice campaigns against exploitative high-profile restaurant companies, obtaining more than $10 million and improvements in workplace policies for restaurant workers. As more people realize they have power to get the world’s largest corporations to budge, as we’ve already seen with Wal-Mart and McDonald’s among others, the dominoes will continue to fall. And our industry is huge. The majority of the more than 10 million restaurant employees out there undoubtedly know what it’s like to be treated unfairly and agree they should be getting paid enough to put food on their own tables and support their families.

ATTN: What is the single biggest policy prescription you'd recommend people advocate for to reduce income inequality and, specifically, for your target population? Is it just about raising the wage or are there other elements?

MM: The two-tiered wage system which forces a predominantly female-workforce to depend on tips for her take-home pay has to go. Because 70% of servers are women, the lower, tipped minimum wage is effectively legislated pay inequity. ROC is advocating for ‘One Fair Wage’ by raising the lower, tipped minimum wage to match the regular minimum wage, and fight to ensure that everyone is paid a fair wage directly by their employer.

This is about fairness, it’s also about gender-justice. The restaurant industry is the single-largest source of sexual harassment charges to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, absolutely crushing sectors with a rate five times higher than any other industry. ROC released the first ever national survey of tipped restaurant workers: 90% of women tipped workers report experiencing sexual harassment on the job. You can pretty much ask anyone in the restaurant industry and they’ll tell you that dealing with being groped, uncomfortably hit on, being told to wear tight clothes and show more cleavage, and even currying favor with your managers and co-workers to get the best shifts for tips -- that’s all just ‘part of the job.’ This dynamic stays with women for life, the report also shows that tipped workers are more likely to tolerate forms of harassment later on in life at different industries because ‘it was never as bad as it was in the restaurant industry.’

1 in 12 of people work in the restaurant industry and for a countless millions of women, being a server will be their first job. It’s pretty clear why ‘One Fair Wage’ is being supported by women’s rights organizations like National Organization for Women, V-Day, and One Billion Rising. We cannot continue to let one of the the largest industries in the country systematically objectify women and subject them to poverty wages.

ATTN: Should we raise the minimum wage? If so, why? If not, why?

Yes - absolutely. The minimum wage should be, at the very least, livable -- and there shouldn’t be a lower wage for tipped workers. It should be tied to inflation so we don’t have to fight tooth and nail every few years for a meager wage increase.

Raising the wage is also just better business. Research shows that investing in your workforce in the restaurant industry through higher wages cuts turnover costs in half -- in HALF -- that’s usually the highest cost of running a restaurant, prevented by paying your employees a little bit more. Legislating a livable minimum wage ensures that restaurant owners that are already doing right by their employees -- and there are a lot -- aren’t competing against the extreme rock-bottom wages of an Olive Garden or a McDonald’s.

There are seven states that have already eliminated the lower minimum wage for tipped workers -- the entire West Coast, Nevada, Minnesota, and Alaska. They all have thriving restaurant industries and strong employment growth. New York just announced a major increase to its tipped wage, raising it from $5.00 an hour to $7.50 by the end of this year. And there’s an historic number of states debating ‘One Fair Wage’ legislation right now -- Rhode Island, Connecticut, among others across the East Coast.

The public is ready for a wage increase and definitely supports changing how tipped workers are paid. A recent national poll shows that 71% of Americans support raising the lower, tipped minimum wage to match the regular wage -- and the vast majority support a minimum wage of $12 to $15 an hour.