Sexual Assault Awareness Month ended in April, but these conversations must continue.
I came across a meme the other day that said, “I hope you tell your girl she’s beautiful as much as the cooks at her job do.”
I’ll admit, I laughed, not because it was particularly funny, but because I had never seen the truth of back-of-house restaurant behavior put in such stark terms. It’s an open secret that the food service industry has a problem with sexual harassment that, in the age of #MeToo, needs to be addressed — publicly. (This episode of Bite — a podcast by Mother Jones — explores investigative reporter Tracie McMillan’s disturbing findings about sexual misconduct in the restaurant industry.)
When I was 17, I worked at a fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant. One day, I was sad at work after an uncle of mine passed away. The prep cook asked if I needed a hug. Innocently, I accepted, but his next action shook me to my core. In one swift motion, his hands moved to my butt, he cupped BOTH cheeks, and he lifted me off the ground.
Surprised, I yelled and he dropped me. I reported the incident to management who launched an “internal investigation.” Two weeks later, they approached me with paperwork stating that I would not press charges against the organization. I had two choices: sign…or leave. I was living on my own for the first time and I needed the money. I signed the form, and the prep cook kept his job.
My experience is not unique. BuzzFeed’s analysis of US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data found that restaurant employees report sexual harassment more than workers in any other industry.
In writing this story, I spoke to half a dozen women and two men who had either witnessed or experienced incidents similar to mine.
Kelly* told me about an incident that took place with a manager at a family-owned restaurant where she worked.
“He said ‘If you let me take you out, I’ll cut you [from your shift] early.’” she said. “When he cut me, I went home. The next day, he was annoyed and asked ‘What happened to you?’ and I realized he was serious.”
It got so bad that she had to come in after hours to discuss his behavior with the owner — her manager’s father. The manager became enraged, denied everything, and stormed out of the meeting as the owner bungled an apology. The next day, all of her shifts had been removed from the schedule.
Autumn* was working as a supervisor at a restaurant on the grounds of a popular tourist destination in Orlando, Florida when she was told, point blank, that she was hired because she “looked good in a tight shirt.”
Back-of-house culture is a rough environment for women. Power dynamics make it easy for those in the service industry to be taken advantage of. Server wage is infamously low and most service employees simply can’t afford to lose their jobs. So they tolerate sexist, inappropriate behavior in the kitchen for fear of retribution and loss of income.
The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) is a worker’s rights organization that provides aid and legal guidance to restaurant employees who have experienced sexual harassment. Their recently launched #1FairWage campaign is advocating for fair wages in their mission to end sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. But in these employees’ actual workplaces, there is no neutral or third party resources where workers can report these violations. Often, that means there is no relief in sight.
Workers don’t report their harassment because, more often than not, the people to whom they would report instances of abuse are the ones doing the harassing.
I have worked in every tier of the food industry, from fine dining restaurants that serve the likes of Paul McCartney and George Takei on a regular basis to mom-n-pop barbecue shops that tout “Christian” values. In every single scenario, I have personally experienced sexual harassment or assault.
I asked the women I interviewed what they thought should be done to change this toxic environment. They universally agreed that corporate culture in the service industry needs to change.
“Being friendly is part of the job because we work for tips.” Kelly said. “But it needs to be stressed that just because it’s ‘part of the job,’ that is not license for someone to take advantage of you.”
In March 2018, the New York Times published a piece discussing how the culture of tipping in restaurants enables sexual harassment (most tipped workers at restaurants are women) — which is also a focus of ROC United’s aforementioned #1FairWage campaign. In an age of visibility and accountability, I hope that shedding light on rampant sexual harassment in the service industry encourages these companies to look inwards. To evaluate the behavior of those in power and learn not to of shrug off the concerns of female employees with a callous, “That’s just the way it is.”
It’s 2018. That’s not “just the way it is.” Not anymore.