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Tipped Service Workers Are More Vulnerable Amid Pandemic Harassment Spike: Study


The restaurant industry has been battered by the pandemic, with many establishments going out of business for good. Millions of service industry workers all over the country have lost their jobs. Even at the best of times, those workers were typically paid below the minimum wage and relied on tips to make up the difference. Now, a new report finds that for those still working, more than 80% report declining tips, and around 40% say they're facing an uptick in sexual harassment from customers. The workers also expressed concerns about proper COVID-19 safety protocols.

Saru Jayaraman is president of the group One Fair Wage, which advocates for higher pay for restaurant workers. She's also a director at the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, and she joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

SARU JAYARAMAN: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: So for this report, you surveyed about 2,600 restaurant workers about how the pandemic has affected their lives. What did you hear?

JAYARAMAN: We were really shocked with how horrific the situation truly is. About half of the workers reported that somebody in their restaurant had gotten sick with the pandemic. About a third of the workers said they knew somebody who had died from the pandemic. Sixty percent of workers said that they did not feel comfortable enforcing social distancing and mask rules on the very same customers from whom they have to get tips to survive, to make up their base wage. And that's a public health disaster because the CDC in September reported that adults are twice as likely to get COVID from eating in a restaurant. But I think the most horrific thing that honestly all of us who are involved in the study were all blown away by was the huge increase in hostility and sexual harassment.

ELLIOTT: I mean, that's what you named your report - "Take Off Your Mask So I'll Know How Much To Tip You." That's one of the comments women workers say they've been hearing but a lot of other rather disturbing comments as well, right?

JAYARAMAN: That's right - in fact, so common that we've come up with a new phrase to describe it. We're calling it maskual (ph) harassment. It's basically a phenomenon in which women across the country who work in restaurants are being asked to remove their masks so that male customers can judge their looks and therefore their tips on that basis, which makes this the only group of essential workers who are not receiving the minimum wage and who are being asked to remove their protective gear for a chance to earn a tip.

And the thing is that there's a very clear solution. Seven states have gotten rid of this system of paying a sub-minimum wage. And workers in those states report one-half the level of sexual harassment as workers in the 43 states with a sub-minimum wage. And that's because when you get a full wage from your boss, you don't have to put up with everything from the customers.

ELLIOTT: You know, you worked with Catharine MacKinnon, who pioneered the term sexual harassment in a 1976 book. What was the link between COVID and sexual harassment in the service industry?

JAYARAMAN: It comes down, frankly, to the power dynamic between these women workers and their male customers. There's absolutely no power that the women have to slap away the hand of a man who's trying to grab them if they need their tip because the women reported, as you said, that tips are way down. And so the women are far more reliant on any customers they can get in just a matter of nine or 10 months.

It's like the mask has become the veil, and asking a woman to take it off is equivalent to asking her to strip. The only thing I want people to note is that in this case, stripping the mask off is equivalent to asking her to kill herself, to essentially subject herself to the virus and the possibility of death for the sexual pleasure of customers, all because she doesn't get paid a minimum wage.

ELLIOTT: I was a little surprised to see in your report a $2.13 pay rate because I worked in this industry many moons ago and was making about the same amount. It hasn't gone up in, like, more than 30 years.

JAYARAMAN: Well, there is somebody you can thank for that, and that's Herman Cain. Herman Cain struck a deal with Congress and the Clinton administration as the head of the National Restaurant Association saying they wouldn't oppose the minimum wage going up as long as the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers stayed frozen forever.

ELLIOTT: So how can we best support our favorite local restaurants or our regular waiters when we try to go out to eat or do so safely, anyway?

JAYARAMAN: We would love to ask you to go to your favorite restaurant and tell the manager or the owner that you love eating there, and you'd love to see them join forces with hundreds of other independent restaurants that have decided to pay what we call one fair wage. And you can say, as a customer, I would feel more secure knowing that the servers in your restaurant got paid a full minimum wage and therefore felt empowered to tell other customers to keep it safe.

ELLIOTT: Saru Jayaraman is a professor at UC Berkeley and the president of One Fair Wage.


JAYARAMAN: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: We asked the National Restaurant Association to respond to the One Fair Wage report. The association told us it condemns sexual harassment of all workers. The trade group also said that before the pandemic, tipped restaurant workers often earned more than minimum wage but that the pandemic has fundamentally changed the food service industry and that, quote, "we still don't know how much of it will survive." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.