#MeToo media outrage isn’t enough to change the service industry

“When you’re not leaving your shift at the end of the night with a guaranteed income, it’s difficult to speak out against put-downs and come-ons.”
“When you’re not leaving your shift at the end of the night with a guaranteed income, it’s difficult to speak out against put-downs and come-ons.”
Image: AP Photo/Amy Sancetta
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When I was 17, the manager of a donut shop where I worked would send me crude texts. Sometimes they were seemingly harmless messages about my upcoming shift followed by a wink; other times they were blatant comments about my “nice ass.” I also got scheduled for more hours than most other employees, so I always brushed it off.

In all seven of the service gigs that I worked in small-town South Carolina—from fine dining to sports bars—the story was always the same. If the owners weren’t commenting on or criticizing your body, the customers certainly were. At other jobs, I had customers leave me hotel keys as tips, or make remarks about my body as I just laughed and took their order. In more extreme cases, I heard horror stories from former co-workers about other employees exposing themselves in the bathroom during late-night shifts.

We all felt powerless. Owners, managers, and customers all paid our bills in one way or another, and most of us couldn’t afford to speak out against them. Sometimes I’d be punished for being what one owner called a “prude,” by which he meant I didn’t always try hard enough to play off the banter or unwanted advances. I’d get scheduled less often or forced to work slow shifts or in sections of the restaurant where it was internally known you’d earn less money in tips.

At 23, I left service work behind and moved to New York to pursue a career in journalism. But as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements unfold, I have often thought about my time in the local service industry. We’re all watching takedown after takedown of powerful, bad men in the entertainment industry, tech industry, and political realm. It’s almost formulaic at this point: An article uncovers years of abuse, outrage ensues, and someone is fired or resigns. On the surface, justice seems to be served.

The service industry, however, on the surface seems to remain untouched by this new swell of enthusiasm against sexual harassment.

Sure, major publications have touched on the general hostile nature of restaurants—on how the food service industry sees some of the most rampant sexual harassment and the overall toxic culture of it. And at first, I felt relieved to see those headlines. But I still helplessly watch as the friends I left behind in South Carolina continue to tolerate incessant mistreatment. It’s almost like the movement hasn’t reached them.

“This is just how things are”

Back when I worked in restaurants, I’d often tell myself after each unwanted comment or degrading interaction with a manager that “this is just how things are.” But well after I left South Carolina, I was still thinking about those instances.

In graduate school in 2016, well before high-profile cases like those of Bill O’Reilly and Weinstein came to light, I led an investigative project that dove into sexual harassment cases in the hospitality industry. After spending months reading docket after docket filed in recent years to the E.E.O.C. and other human rights commissions across the country, I discovered just how widespread this mistreatment was. My former co-workers and I were certainly not alone.

Through my research, I learned about the economic and power dynamics perpetuate a culture of sexual harassment in low-wage industries and restaurants. One financial hurdle that’s been discussed time and time again is the practice of tipping. As Restaurants Opportunities Center United, a worker-advocacy group, noted in it’s initial 2014 report on sexual harassment and the restaurant industry, women who were surveyed by the organization that worked in states that used a “tipped minimum wage,” which can be as low as $2.13 per hour, were twice as likely to experience sexual harassment as women in states that paid the same minimum wage to all workers.

When you’re not leaving your shift at the end of the night with a guaranteed income, it’s difficult to speak out against put-downs and come-ons. In theory, employers are required by federal law to make up the difference between the tipped wage and minimum wage when tips don’t actually cover it, but that doesn’t always happen in practice. In my days waiting tables for particularly bad managers, I’d often have to pay for mistakes when a dish was ordered incorrectly or a customer complained. That would sometimes subtract $20 or more from my paycheck, so I’d leave those nights feeling even more fearful of crossing my boss.  

Other widespread forms of retaliation often cited in lawsuits are scheduling and suspensions. In instances where servers do come forward about the mistreatment they’ve experienced, some have seen a reduction in hours or have had shifts taken away all together, taking a direct and immediate hit to their financial well being. When you’re living off of tips, every table you can turn each hour matters.

Although these types of retaliation are against federal law, low wage workers are less equipped to tackle long legal processes, and they may not even be aware of the option to fight back. In so many restaurants where I worked, this kind of abuse was an open secret. Once after a particularly hostile, degrading episode with a manager where I was forced to pay money out of my tips for a mistake, I had a chef tell me, “you know you can go to someone about this.” But could I have? There was no human resources department for me to speak to, no documentation of any account, as is the case for many smaller and mid-sized restaurants. I was unaware of my rights.

Beyond #MeToo

I often struggle with feeling complicit for not outing the managers and owners who I know, from firsthand experience, are culprits.

Even though I’m on a completely different career path now, part of me still fears these managers and owners. Part of me worries for the women who continue to work for them, but another wonders what would even happen if I said something. What good would it do to take down one bad owner, when there’s another only two miles down the road?

The power of local restaurant managers may not be comparable to that of Harvey Weinstein’s power in Hollywood. But when workers rely on low wages and have to navigate unfair business practices, especially in cities and towns where everyone knows everyone, it’s almost impossible to escape that power dynamic. In some ways those owners are similar to Weinstein: It’s your word against a community that continues to support their establishments, even as whispers grow louder.

Takedowns of one bad actor after another are no longer enough. There has to be a constant push for systemic change that addresses each unique work environment, particularly for low-wage and vulnerable workers who are less likely to have a voice in all of this.

One such bit of legislation, the EMPOWER Act, would end non-disclosure agreements and require public companies to disclose any settlements. While those actions are an important start in addressing sexual harassment in the workplace more broadly, it still wouldn’t be enough to help most service employees. These workers don’t tend to deal with NDAs, and many work for local businesses, not public companies.

Preventing sexual harassment in the service industry means dismantling the practice of tipping and paying service workers a guaranteed wage, so they don’t have to tolerate a customer’s bad behavior. It means fair scheduling acts, like the one passed recently in Oregon, so managers can’t take an employee off the schedule at random, just because he or she didn’t play along with their sexual advances. It means understanding the complexities of individual industries and passing legislation that holds all employers accountable to anti-harassment policies, beyond Hollywood and larger companies.

The burden should not rest on service industry workers to put their livelihoods at risk and call out their harassers. Truly eliminating harassment in the industry will take cutting the problem at the roots. 

Last month, a 21-year-old server in Georgia, Emelia Holden, was applauded nationwide for body-slamming a customer who groped her as he walked past. The whole encounter was caught on camera. No one could dispute it. After the incident went viral, in an opinion piece for CNN, journalist Alice Driver wrote about her personal encounters in college waiting tables. “Had I possessed her confidence at that age, I too would have body-slammed a customer who groped me,” Driver wrote.

As much as I respect the sentiment of Driver’s piece, I honestly can’t say that I would have done the same. I’m not sure I’d even speak up even today. I don’t know who else I’d hurt or whose job I’d endanger in the process, beyond the bad employers I once faced. As noble as Holden’s actions were, I’m not sure many servers across the country would have done the same, either.

What happened to Holden may be commonplace. But the response is not. Ending sexual harassment in restaurants is not as simple as momentary outrage.