Insights on Restaurant Industry Abuse

Working in the restaurant industry as a woman is a little volatile.

It was my first job, and I was still in training. I delivered a tray to a group of twenty-something year old guys in the corner, and as I turned to go there was a flurry of misplaced compliments in my wake. When I returned with the second tray, they called me over by name (our management required us to wear nametags under penalty of a workplace demerit) and the ringleader, Moses, introduced himself. I nodded and set the food down as quickly as possible. Before I could escape, he loudly asked for my number since I was so pretty. I politely and quietly declined, but he flushed angrily. I walked away, and they continued to jeer and catcall me whenever I passed their table, which was often given their placement in the dining room. My manager noticed my red face and shaky hands but did not act when I explained.

“Oh, they just think you’re cute. Part of the business,” he said, turning away.

I was sixteen.

It was the first, but nowhere near the last time I was harassed at work. I learned to avoid direct confrontation. If the harassment took place towards the end of a shift, I would hold my keys between my knuckles as I walked to my car. If a customer started making advances at me, I would move my hair over my nametag. I never wore clothes with my school logo on them. The girls I worked with all bonded over customer harassment horror stories, but the management never did anything to keep us safe. After all, it was just part of the business.

According to a study by The Restaurant Opportunities Centers, workers in the food service industry experience the highest rates of sexual harassment in the entire nation. Women in the industry are especially at risk; 60% of female workers have experienced harassment, and over 50% experience it on a weekly basis. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as any “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature” that create a hostile work environment. These advances come from a variety of sources in the workplace. The same study found that 66% of restaurant workers reported harassment from management, 80% reported it from co-workers, and 78% reported it from customers. 

There are a number of reasons why these numbers are so high, but one major reason is that sexual harassment is considered normal in the restaurant industry. 

“Many restaurant workers who encounter unwanted sexual advances in the workplace do not immediately understand their experiences as sexual harassment,” The Restaurant Opportunities Centers states. “Focus groups and interviews with restaurant workers conducted by ROC-United indicate that the gap between the pervasive experience of sexual harassment on the job and the lower rates at which those behaviors are actually reported is partially explained by the way that sexual behaviors in restaurants are normalized and widely considered ‘part of the job.’”

A second study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center reported that restaurant workers who experienced harassment were more likely to tolerate it in different industries later on and in their personal lives. They were trained to view it as a normal occurrence and stopped standing up for themselves in situations outside of work too. 

The instances of customers harassing food service workers has risen both in frequency and aggression over the pandemic. A study by One Fair Wage reported that more than 41% of workers noticed this increase in harassment. Much of it has been related to COVID-19; almost 80% of the workers surveyed had experienced or witnessed hostility from customers when safety protocols were enforced, resulting in 58% being more hesitant to enforce COVID-19 protocols out of concern that tips would decrease. Many of the workers surveyed shared that a large number of unwanted advances included customers explicitly telling servers to take off their mask if they wanted a tip. 

Normalizing hostile behaviors discourages victims from standing up for themselves. Part of good service is keeping the customer happy, and while calling customers out on their behavior is merited, it does not make them happy. Workers are therefore expected to tolerate harassment to avoid losing customers. Some restaurants have taken great strides to protect their workers and encourage them to speak up, like Erin Wade’s Homeroom, which uses a color coded system to derail harassment as soon as it starts. 

“We found that most customers test the waters before escalating and that women have a canny sixth sense for unwanted attention,” she wrote in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post. “When reds [intense instances of harassment] do occur, our employees are empowered to act decisively.”

Each color in the system correlates with a specific response from management, no questions asked. While this system is working in her restaurant, it is not a complete solution for everywhere else. One important distinction to note is that California, where Homeroom is located, is one of only seven states that pay workers a full minimum wage plus tips. The other six are Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana, Minnesota and Arkansas. The other 43 use the subminimum wage model, which pays restaurant workers $2.13 per hour with the expectation that tips will make up the difference. 

Making restaurant workers dependent on tips in turn makes them dependent on the customers who are treating them like objects. 

“The subminimum wage for tipped workers requires restaurant service workers — a majority of whom are women and disproportionately women of color — to tolerate inappropriate and degrading customer behavior in order to obtain tips that comprise the majority of their income,” states the One Fair Wage study. 

However, the study reported that sexual harassment rates are cut in half when restaurant workers make full minimum wage with tips on top. They are also more qualified to receive unemployment insurance, unlike their subminimum wage-earning counterparts. Making a livable wage outside of tips empowers workers to stand up for themselves and leave hostile situations. While harassment itself is not caused by subminimum wage, this model can hinder workers from having the financial power to stand up for themselves. 

What will bring the greatest change in this issue is a societal shift that values treating workers in all industries with respect. Learning to see the worker behind the counter as a human with feelings and dignity should cause customers to treat them as such. They are not emotionless objects for customers to toy with as they please. Harassment will continue to be a problem until their humanity is recognized and respected. Responsive solutions are good, but preventative measures are better. Until society realizes that it is the problem, it can never be fully prevented. 





Sources Used (in order of appearance):

– The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry (

– U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ( 

– Take Us Off the Menu: The Impact of Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry ( 

-Take Off Your Mask So  I Know How Much to Tip You: Service Workers’ Experience of Health & Harassment During COVID-19 ( 

– “Opinion: I’m a female chef. Here’s how my restaurant dealt with harassment from customers.”