Increased sexual harassment has become an underreported side effect during the pandemic, a study of almost 1,700 restaurant workers in five states, plus Washington, D.C., released Tuesday from employee rights activist organization, One Fair Wage, concluded. In the study, “Service Workers’ Experience of Health & Harassment,” which was published in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley Food Labor Research Center and the Queens College, City University of New York, 41% of restaurant employees reported a “noticeable change in the number of unwarranted sexual comments” from customers and 25% noticed a significant change in the frequency of harassment.
“Nearly 250 workers shared sexualized comments from customers, a substantial portion of which were requests from male customers that female service workers remove their mask so that they could judge their looks, and, implicitly, determine their tips on that basis,” the study authors, with editorial support from the Time’s Up Foundation, reported, calling many of the comments “even more sexually explicit” than that.
Some of the milder comments reported by survey respondents included “your mask brings out your eyes! Smile for me!” and “I want to see the face of the girl who gave me great service,” while others reported that customers became irate and sexually aggressive when met with restaurant mask requirements. Still others would use the opportunity to use the mask as an excuse to lay on more unwanted attention, with comments such as, “I can be covid [sic] and still make you short of breath.”
“Service workers are facing a clear crisis, unable to protect themselves or enforce the safety protocols needed to protect the public,” Saru Jayaraman, executive director of One Fair Wage said in a statement. “Women are literally being asked to expose themselves to illness and death for the pleasure of male customers - and all for a subminimum wage. Now, more than ever, eliminating the subminimum wage for tipped workers is a public health emergency.”
It should be noted, however, that the survey respondents hailed from five states and one federal district where tip credits are still legalized. Currently, seven states have banned a tip credit, including California and Washington. Further, the study does not directly compare the experiences from servers that hail from states with higher tipped wages vs. those with lower tipped wages.
The survey of restaurant workers in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. also concluded that 83% of restaurant workers have noticed their tips decline during the pandemic and 66% of respondents noticed that their tips have gone down by at least half. It should be noted, however, that the survey respondents hailed from five states and one federal district where tip credits are still legalized. Currently, seven states have banned a tip credit, including California and Washington. Further, the study does not directly compare the experiences from servers that hail from states with higher tipped wages vs. those with lower tipped wages.
When it comes to enforcing COVID-19 policies, 78% of respondents reported experiencing hostile behavior from customers in response to mask policy enforcement and over one-half of workers felt reluctant to enforce the policies out of fear of receiving smaller gratuities.
Employees surveyed also responded to feeling unsafe in their working environment: 44% reported knowing at least one coworker that had contracted COVID-19 and nearly 9 in 10 reported knowing at least one person in their life who had contracted the virus. More than one-third of respondents reported that their employer had not conducted mandatory COVID-19 training and 84% of workers reported being within six feet of someone not wearing a mask during a shift at least once. Overall, 69% said that their place of work was not following pandemic safety protocols.
“If we want to stop COVID hotspots, we must ensure these workers are paid a full minimum wage and can enforce safety protocols and resist sexual abuse undermining their ability to feed themselves and their families,” Jayraman said in a statement.
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