Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry Is Key to ‘Solve Harassment In All Industries’

Many women are likely to experience sexual harassment in the restaurant industry early in their work life, something that could stick with them throughout their time in the workforce.

[Photo: A female waitress works on a cash register]
Restaurants are hotbeds of sexual harassment. About 80 percent of women in the industry report experiencing harassment from customers and coworkers, according to ROC research, while two-thirds say they were harassed by management. Shutterstock

Marisa Licandro has worked in restaurants, both in the back of the house and front of the house, since the age of 17. “These years have been some of the most formative five years of my life,” she said Tuesday on a call with the media.

But the impact has often been damaging. When she was in culinary school, a co-worker attempted to rape her in an on-campus restaurant.

“Even to this day … I struggle to talk about it,” she said, because “it was made unimportant by the people I reported it to.” Her manager refused her request to change her schedule so she didn’t have to work with the co-worker. Eventually she quit her job, giving up money that paid her tuition and bills.

One in three people in the United States begins their working lives in the restaurant industry, and half of the United States’ workforce will work in it at some point in their lives. “We’re not talking about a small sliver of the population that experiences this industry in their youth,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, on the press call. What happens there holds much larger importance than most jobs.

Licandro minimized the attempted rape at the time because of her experiences in the restaurant industry. “I didn’t take my own story seriously because of the years I spent in the industry witnessing these things happening and not seeing any conversation or solutions,” she said. “My years in the industry clouded my concept of what sexual harassment and assault are, and it left me unable to even understand my own experience.”

She’s still working to erase the impact working in restaurants has had on how she thinks about sexual harassment. “I feel like I’ve been desensitized to defining and calling these things out,” she said. “I’m trying my best to unlearn the things that I learned in my first couple of years in the industry and hoping this doesn’t follow me through my career.”

Restaurants are hotbeds of sexual harassment. About 80 percent of women in the industry report experiencing harassment from customers and co-workers, according to ROC research, while two-thirds say they were harassed by management.

That means a huge number of women are likely to experience sexual harassment in their early careers, something that could stick with them throughout their working lives. To figure out what impact this phenomenon is having, ROC evaluated surveys with 233 restaurant workers and conducted over a dozen qualitative interviews with former and current restaurant workers, including women who had moved on to work in politics, media, Hollywood, and corporate America.

Almost three quarters of women who previously worked for tips say they’ve tolerated inappropriate behavior at work that makes them nervous or uncomfortable, according to ROC’s initial data. “These early experiences for young women really impact [their] experiences later in life,” Jayaraman said. “It normalizes harassment, it forces women to accept harassment later in life.”

“For the rest of our lives, women believe anything that is not what we experienced in the industry is better and therefore okay, acceptable, tolerable, even legal,” she added.

Nearly all of the interviewees ROC spoke to had the same perspective: They didn’t think about their early experiences as constituting sexual harassment until asked to reflect on them for the survey. “Even though it was grabbing, touching … inappropriate comments,” Jayaraman said. That meant many of them put up with similar behavior in other workplaces after they left the industry.

Jennifer Williamson is a state representative in Oregon. But her first job was working in a restaurant at 14 years old, and she worked in the industry through law school. “I, like many women and girls, never considered this sexual harassment,” she said. Her increased tolerance for unwanted sexual behavior stuck with her well after she left food service. “That followed me into working in corporate law and even in politics—what we tolerate from our colleagues,” she said.

A driver of harassment in restaurants is that many aren’t paid the full federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. In 43 states, restaurants can legally pay those who make tips less than that. This leaves workers dependent on tips to earn a decent living, which can incentivize them to put up with things they wouldn’t otherwise tolerate. ROC has found that tipped female workers in states that require all workers to be paid the same minimum wage experience sexual harassment at half the rate of those in states with a lower tipped minimum wage.

“When you have a mostly female workforce in the front of the house … earning the sub-minimum wage and a mostly male management team and mostly male kitchen staff earning the full minimum wage,” Jayaraman said, “basically you have a situation of legalized gender pay inequity.” That inequity breeds a disturbing power dynamic. Not only do female servers have to rely on customers for tips—motivating them to tolerate inappropriate behavior—but they also rely on the mostly male kitchen staff to cook the meals that get them those tips. Their schedules, set by male mangers, can determine whether they make a lot or a little in tips. “The fluctuating nature of the tips ends up giving every man in the restaurant power over [female servers],” Jayaraman said.

When Abby Keller’s (a pseudonym) manager at her bar started touching her butt and stroking her stomach, she felt trapped. “Beyond feeling like this is normal, I felt like it was my fault,” she said. “There was nothing I could do. I needed the job.”

“Having to struggle to make minimum wage … furthers the oppression and normalizes” harassment, she said. It was just part and parcel of working in the industry.

One solution would be mandating the same minimum wage for all workers, tipped and non-tipped, so servers aren’t subjected to the whims of customers and coworkers. New York’s governor has convened hearings on eliminating the tipped minimum wage in the state, and there are upcoming ballot initiatives in June in Washington, D.C. and in November in Michigan to do the same.

Given the ripple effects harassment in restaurants has on women later in life, such policy changes could have outsize impacts. “It’s critical not just for the restaurant industry, but frankly for women in all sectors,” Jayaraman said. “It’s not just a way to solve harassment in our own industry, but a way to solve harassment in all industries.”