Feminists Unite Against Sexual Harassment and Subminimum Wages Plaguing Service Workers

We know the pandemic has exacerbated sexual harassment experienced by service workers. New research shows tipped workers who earn below the minimum wage are even more likely to experience harassment.

For the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened or created new challenges for nearly every industry—especially the service industry, which disproportionately comprises women of color workers receiving a subminimum wage. Following One Fair Wage’s recent research showing the pandemic had exacerbated already prevalent sexual harassment experienced by service workers, the labor justice group recently shared another report in partnership with U.C. Berkeley Food Labor Research Center, which found tipped workers who earn below the minimum wage are more likely to experience sexual harassment.

According to One Fair Wage’s new report, 71 percent of women restaurant workers have been sexually harassed at least once during their time in the restaurant industry, often by both customers and supervisors. This number is the highest of any industry reporting statistics on sexual harassment. Tipped workers who receive a subminimum wage experience sexual harassment at a rate that’s significantly higher than their non-tipped counterparts, by a 75 to 52 percent margin, as they’re almost wholly reliant on tips from customers to make ends meet.

In a recent press conference hosted by One Fair Wage, Black Women’s Roundtable, United State of Women, Futures Without Violence and other partners, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and others spoke on the importance of guaranteeing a living wage for service workers to promote gender equity, and their support for the Raise the Wage Act. This bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025, and ensure tipped workers receive at least the federal minimum wage in addition to tips.

“Raising the minimum wage won’t solve all our problems, but it’s an important step forward from an economic and moral perspective,” Sen. Sanders said. “In the wealthiest country on Earth, no one should be making starvation wages. The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2007, and even worse, unbelievably, the wage for tipped workers is at $2.13 an hour.”

Sanders also acknowledged 70 percent of tipped workers are women, who “suffer from the highest levels of sexual harassment of any industry” and simultaneously experience sexual and economic exploitation. He called the issue a “gender issue and a racial issue” because Black women tipped workers make $5 an hour less than their white male counterparts.

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Following Sen. Sanders, Esta Soler, president of Futures Without Violence, also spoke, calling attention to how supporting subminimum wage earners by passing the Raise the Wage Act could reduce the vulnerability of women workers to sexual harassment and violence. “They would not need to subject themselves to objectification in order to earn their wage,” Soler said. “They would no longer be faced with Sophie’s choice: their personal safety and well-being, or their job. It’s time to fix this.”

Valerie Jarrett, president of United State of Women and a former senior adviser to President Obama, emphasized the importance of a “holistic approach” to address the sexism and economic inequity that tipped workers face, especially amid the pandemic. “We have to pay a living wage—not rely on tips to get by,” she said. “We have to raise the minimum wage, make sure there’s equal pay, and have paid leave and paid sick days—all issues that have been laid bare by the pandemic.”

One Fair Wage’s report also exposed the persistent gender wage gap within the service industry. According to its findings, in the U.S., female restaurant workers are 1.3 times more likely to live in poverty as their male counterparts, and earn 80 percent on the dollar compared to male restaurant workers.

However, in states that have implemented the Raise the Wage Act, which guarantees a full, living minimum wage with tips, the gender wage gap is 25 percent less than the national average among restaurant workers, and tipped workers are 50 percent less likely to experience sexual harassment.

One Fair Wage’s report from last year found women service workers were economically impacted and endangered by sexual harassment they faced. Sixty-five percent of workers reported customers docking their tips if they were asked to adhere to public health protocols such as wearing a mask. More than a quarter of those surveyed in the report said they witnessed a rise in sexual comments and harassment from customers, and 43% of women surveyed reported they had experienced it themselves. One worker recounted how a male customer asked her to “take [her] mask off so they could see [her] face and decide how much to tip [her].”

Service workers have always faced sexual harassment and even assault, on top of being denied living wages and often struggling to make ends meet. But amid the pandemic, not only has sexual misconduct targeting workers increased—it’s also impacted their wages and safety by lowering the tips they receive and potentially exposing them to COVID-19.

Leaders of last week’s press conference emphasized the urgent importance of passing the Raise the Wage Act on the federal level, and addressing sexual harassment and exploitation targeting disproportionately women of color workers. Senator Sanders acknowledged the roadblocks to legislation to increase the minimum wage in the U.S. Senate, including the preservation of the filibuster, but expressed optimism in the power of organizing. “Between you and me, I think we’re going to win,” he said.

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Kylie Cheung writes about reproductive and survivor justice, and is the author of Survivor Injustice: State-Sanctioned Abuse, Domestic Violence, and the Fight for Bodily Autonomy, available Aug. 15.