Across the country, servers and bartenders are speaking out with stories of crude comments, groping and other unacceptable behaviors by customers. Over the past year, much attention has been placed on sexual harassment and inappropriate treatment of employees in the workplace. However, one of the largest industries in the country is being overlooked: the restaurant industry, which has some of the most vulnerable employees of any occupation, according to a March 12 New York Times article. A  Jan. 18 Harvard Business Review article reported that 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men experience some sort of sexual or professional harassment in the restaurant business, which saw more harassment claims filed than any other industry. As stated in the same New York Times article, “A ‘customer is always right’ ethos often tilts the equation — creating the kind of power imbalance that has become front and center in a broader conversation about sex and gender in the workplace.” Servers and bartenders around the country face a dilemma every single day: When relying on tips as a significant part of their income, how should servers go about creating boundaries with customers? Many have learned to ignore inappropriate comments made by customers in order to get that extra tip which might help pay for basic necessities like groceries or rent. This puts these employees at greater risk of sexual harassment, as they are forced to push any mistreatment under the rug when their income depends on it. 

The underlying issue that must be addressed is why employees of the restaurant industry are so dependent on tips to begin with. According to the United States Department of Labor, only seven states require employers to pay tipped employees full state minimum wage before tips. Under federal law, the minimum rate that employers can pay tipped workers is $2.13 per hour, as long as their hourly wages plus tips add up to $7.25 an hour. According to the aforementioned Department of Labor report, this policy often leads to workplace exploitation, such as employers withholding or stealing tips, other forms of wage theft and, even worse, sexual harassment. Without a minimum wage, many low-income families will remain perpetually below the poverty line, especially if they are relying on day-to-day tips. 

Beyond the wage rate, employees face another troubling issue. Restaurants aren’t required to have a human resources department, but they are legally required to make sure their employees are not subjected to discrimination or harassment, according to a lawyer specializing in restaurant law who was interviewed in a Oct. 27, 2017 Huffington Post article. Often, however, restaurant workers have no one to turn to, as management does not always take care of these cases properly. As Joseph M. Sellers, a lawyer working in Washington, D.C., said in the same New York Times article, “The employer has an obligation to make a safe workplace, and if you complain, they should do something about it.” If an employee does not have a human resources department and cannot turn to their boss, to whom can they go?

Fortunately, efforts are being made to protect employees working in the food industry from harassment. Advocates for workers are pushing multiple states and the District of Columbia to change laws that allow restaurants to pay servers less than the minimum wage. New York recently cited harassment as one of the reasons it was looking into the way tipped workers are paid, according to the March 12 New York Times article. The hope with new payment regulation is that servers would be less dependent on tips as primary sources of income, and consequently more willing to push back against harassment. 

Yet some employers and employees doubt that raising the minimum wage rate for servers is a good idea. Many worry that doing so would cause customers to tip less, while forcing restaurants to close due to higher costs. “The tip credit allows employers to keep their labor costs low and allows us to make a great living,” said Joshua Chaisson, a server from Portland, Maine, who was quoted in the  New York Times article. Chaisson helped create Restaurant Workers of America, an advocacy group that fights to preserve the tipped wage. Many restaurant owners also cannot afford to pay full wage, as they already struggle to make a profit in a notoriously difficult industry.

Sexual harassment of any kind should never be tolerated in the workplace, and without raising the minimum wage for tipped workers and improving conditions for reporting cases of harassment, these issues will persist and go unnoticed.