Tipped Workers Often Powerless Against Sexual Harassment

If you have a daughter, pay attention: more likely than not, she will work in the restaurant industry at some point in her life. Millions of young women in America find their first job waiting tables, living on the largesse of customers’ tips. So many young women start our work lives in an environment in which they are paid hardly at all and touched and talked to in any number of inappropriate ways. Many of them stay in this environment for a lifetime.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, with over 10 million workers, the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy; it is also the absolute lowest-paying. Seven of the 11 lowest-paying jobs in the U.S.—and the two absolute lowest-paying—are restaurant jobs. These are jobs available to every young woman entering the workplace.

The restaurant industry is the “single largest” source of sexual harassment claims; 37 percent of all claims are filed by women working in restaurants, which is more than five times the rate of the general female workforce.

The fact that this profitable and growing industry pays the nation’s lowest wages is not inherent to the sector; it is due to the power and influence of the National Restaurant Association, which is led by the nation’s Fortune 500 restaurant corporations and has been named the 10th most powerful lobbying group in Congress. Thanks to the lobby, federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been stuck at $2.13 an hour for the last 22 years.

The restaurant lobby dismisses this fact, describing tipped workers to be wealthy fine dining servers—men who are rolling in tips. The truth is that 70 percent of tipped workers in America are women who work at the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and IHOP, and suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of us. In my organization, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, we like to say that Herman Cain harassed women in more ways than one.

When your only hourly guaranteed wage is $2.13, you live off tips. In fact, one of our members, Rita, told us about the challenges of living on tips alone. “I was a server for 15 years and raised four kids on a server’s wages plus tips. Depending on other people to tip you can be the most stressful part of being a server. There were many nights that I didn’t even make enough to pay my babysitter. What most people don’t realize is that servers don’t make the minimum wage like most people.” When you rely on the largesse of customers for your income, your power to stop them—or your co-workers—from touching you anywhere is greatly reduced.

Like Rita, there are 2 million mothers working in restaurants; 1 million are single mothers with children under the age of 18. Even more alarming, the Equal Opportunity Commission has targeted the restaurant industry as the “single largest” source of sexual harassment claims; 37 percent of all sexual harassment charges filed by women come from the restaurant industry, which is more than five times the rate of the general female workforce.

I have been on 50-city book tour over the last eight months, and every time I speak about these issues, a woman approaches me afterward. These women are IBM executives or corporate lawyers—or restaurant workers—and tell me that they have been sexually harassed, but never did anything about it, because “it was never as bad as it was when I was living off tips in the restaurant industry.” What will happen to our daughters?


Saru Jayaraman is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), Director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley. She authored Behind the Kitchen Door, a groundbreaking exploration of the political, economic, and moral implications of dining out.