Restaurant Workers, Sexual Harassment and the COVID-19 Pandemic

There is a connection between restaurant work and sexual harassment – one that has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. The highest rate of sexual harassment in any industry is among female restaurant workers. With the coronavirus pandemic, sexual harassment in the food industry has become even more of a threat, as abusive customers may risk the lives of their servers by getting too close or asking them to pull their masks down.

Link Between Tips and Harassment

Restaurant and service industry workers who rely on tips to make a living are in a more difficult position than other workers when it comes to sexual harassment at work. Sexual harassment is part of the job to many restaurant workers, who believe it comes with the territory or must be endured to make tips.

Furthermore, standing up to abusive customers is often out of the question, as this will result in no tip. Sadly, the need for tip money in this low-wage position leads to many servers suffering in silence. Even with rampant underreporting, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) data finds that women in the food industry file sexual harassment claims twice as much as the general workforce.

According to One Fair Wage, increasing the minimum wage for service workers could go a long way toward decreasing sexual harassment, as it would empower workers to stand up for themselves, confront abusive customers and report sexual harassment at work without fear of losing the tip money they need to pay their bills.

COVID-19 Has Made Things Worse

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the issue of sexual harassment in restaurant work. Since the pandemic began, workers in the food industry have reported more distressing cases of sexual harassment, including hostile forms of harassment that put their lives on the line.

One server, Shelly Ortiz, quit her job of 10 years when a male customer asked her to pull her face mask down during the pandemic so that he could see her smile. When she refused, he said he would instead decide her tip by looking at her chest. Shelly isn’t the only female server that endured forms of sexual harassment during the pandemic that went beyond uncomfortable and downright dangerous.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the food industry as a whole, leading to fewer tips for workers. Thousands of restaurants had to close their doors forever, and those left standing operated at a fraction of their full capacity. Fewer customers mean less in tips for servers – and less of an incentive to put up with a job where sexual harassment is rampant.

What to Do If You’re Sexually Harassed at Work

If you experience sexual harassment during the pandemic, there are ways you can protect yourself. Take the following steps:

  1. Request your personnel files. Before you file a complaint, request a copy of your personnel files. They can prove that you were a satisfactory employee before you made the complaint – and serve as evidence if your employer retaliates against you afterward.
  2. Report it. Report the sexual harassment to your employer right away. The restaurant or company should have a protocol in place for addressing complaints and keeping workers safe.
  3. Document it. Document everything you can about the sexual harassment incident for your own records by writing down the details while they’re still fresh in your mind.
  4. File an official claim. If your employer does not protect you or improve the safety of your workplace, you can file an official complaint with the EEOC.
  5. Contact a lawyer. If your employer retaliates against you for reporting sexual harassment at work, an attorney can help you file a retaliation lawsuit in pursuit of financial compensation.

For more assistance with a sexual harassment claim in the restaurant industry, contact a Los Angeles sexual harassment attorney. A lawyer can stand up for your rights throughout the legal process.