Harassment remains a pervasive problem in foodservice workplaces, and may have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, according to a recent webinar on the topic presented by Les Dames d’Escoffier New York.
The presentation, called “Breaking the Silence — Confronting Harassment in the Hospitality Industry,” was sponsored by the Institute of Culinary Education.
“Workers report being harassed more than pre-pandemic, in part for enforcing pandemic restrictions,” said Melanie Young, founder and host of “The Connected Table Live Radio” and the moderator of the online panel, citing research from labor advocacy group One Fair Wage.
Forty-one percent of restaurant workers reported that harassment has increased during the pandemic, according to the report, which examined restaurant worker experiences and retailer responses during the past year.
Servers report being asked by customers to remove their masks, for example, and also have had to cope with customers who refuse to abide by COVID restrictions, the panelists said.
Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, called for structural changes in the restaurant industry in the wake of the pandemic, including the elimination of the lower minimum wage for tipped employees, which has long been the focus of One Fair Wage. The lower wage for tipped employees creates a culture in which servers — mostly women — are forced to objectify themselves to increase their earnings, she said.
In the seven states that do not have a tipped minimum wage — which is set at $2.13 per hour at the federal level — workers report less harassment. A system in which both front- and back-of-the-house workers receive comparable wages, and tips are shared among all staff, could reduce opportunities for harassment and engender camaraderie, argued Jayaraman.
“In a matter of weeks, we could see the whole industry moving in another direction,” she said.
A growing problem
Harassment had already been a growing problem in the workplace overall before the pandemic, Young noted, citing research from the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission showing that employers paid out a record $68.2 million in sexual harassment claims in 2019, up from the record $56.6 million paid in the preceding year.
Panelists agreed that much of the harassment that takes place in the workplace likely goes unreported, often because people who are harassed may not recognize that what they are experiencing is harassment.
Theodora Lee, a shareholder at Littler Mendelson P.C. and owner of Theopolis Vineyards, described hostile work environments as being “very prevalent in the restaurant business.” These situations, she said, are often endured either because workers don’t realize that what they are experiencing may be illegal, or because they don’t know that they can take action by filing claims at the state or federal level, without the need for a lawyer.
Littler Mendelson works with employers to provide training and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, she said.
“You need to look at where the risks are, and come up with a plan specifically tailored to stop it in its tracks,” said Lee.
Panelists cited the need for comprehensive awareness training in restaurant workplaces that not only explains what harassment is, but encourages all employees to take action when they witness it happening.
Lauren Taylor, director of Safe Bars and Defend Yourself, which offer training for hospitality workplaces, said workers need to overcome the barriers to intervening when they witness harassment in the workplace. Witnesses tend to “mind their own business” when they see such activity, she said, and need to learn how to come forward and report it.
“Skills and practice are the antidote to those barriers,” said Taylor. “We build on the skills hospitality workers already have, and make them more comfortable intervening.”
Taryn Abrahams, founder and CEO of Empower Behavioral Services, also stressed the importance of bystander intervention, citing it as the "missing piece" in companies’ conversations about the topic of harassment.
Fostering a culture where intervention is encouraged is not as easy as simply repeating the anti-terrorism slogan, “If you see something, say something,” she explained.
“If you don’t have the script, and the words, and the tools to be able to intervene, we’re going to do what all usually do, which is to go silent, because it is uncomfortable,” said Abrahams.
The concept of bystander intervention to prevent harassment has been used on college campuses and is being taught at more and more companies, she said. The training involves teaching workers how to intervene without necessarily confronting the harasser.
A benefit of such training, she said, is that it creates a sense of collective responsibility.
“Part of the answer is giving everybody this toolbox,” said Abrahams. “It also gives the survivor a sense of power.”
Other important considerations for employers around the issue of harassment cited by panelists included:
• Designate a human resources specialist. Ashley Oberdorff, director of Empowered Hospitality, said even small business that can’t afford an HR department should consider designating a manager in that role. Resources are available through the Society for Human Resources Management, or SHRM, she noted.
Lee of Littler Mendelson also suggested that every workplace should have one male and one female manager who is responsible for fielding harassment complaints from workers.
• Follow a process. Panelists also cited the importance of documenting instances of harassment, and of gathering all available information before taking action. “When something happens, you set aside a time, you get out a pen and paper, you put your phone away, and you listen to [the person making the harassment claim],” said Alpana Singh, a restaurateur and master sommelier, and the host of the TV show, “Check, Please!” “You allow them to speak, you write it down, and you read it back to them.”
Managers can then conduct a full investigation, and take decisive action quickly, she said.
“If something egregious did happen, you take care of it right away,” said Singh.
• Be aware of harassment in all forms. In addition to sexual harassment, staff can also be harassed for their race or immigration status, for example.