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Pandemic Means More Sex Harassment, Less Tips for Restaurant, Bar Workers; Seek Higher Minimum Wage

Restaurant and other tipped workers are facing increasing harassment and more threats to their incomes, according to a new study by a labor group.  They seek better conditions and a living wage for the group embattled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Restaurant and bar workers have already had to deal with layoffs, limited capacity for their customers, switching to take-out-only service.  Now a study shows they’re also seeing their tips plummet and sexual harassment at work spike. 

Mohini Sharma is with Rochester Metro Justice and has worked in a number of restaurant settings … where unfortunately, inappropriate behavior can’t always be rebuked.

“I could tell the men at the bar that their comments on my looks makes me uncomfortable, that kissing my hand when I serve a drink is inappropriate, that asking me to go home is not a harmless joke, and that ‘no, they cannot have my phone number’, and that ‘no, I do not want to hug them goodbye’.  Sure, I could enforce my boundaries as bluntly as I would like to and sacrifice that week’s groceries and utilities bill.”

Even worse, servers report they’re asked to pull down masks so customers can see how much to tip them … based on their looks.  Not only is that unconscionable, it is also a health risk.

Natasha works as a bartender, only shared her first name, and she finds despite rising COVID cases, she has trouble pushing safety measures.

“Every time I go into work, I’m given pushback constantly for having to take temperatures form customers or trying to enforce masks rules and protocols.  All I ever get is why they shouldn’t have to do it, or they don’t believe in the virus.  They tell me that I am wrong, and I shouldn’t even wear a mask."

These behaviors can threaten their safety and severely affect their income.  The group One Fair Wage is calling on the State to end lower minimum wage for tipped workers.  Director Saru Jayaraman says their study shows, for example,  4 out of 5 servers are seeing more hostile behavior …

“60% of workers say they cannot enforce health and safety protocols like masks and social distancing because they rely on tips from those very same customers on whom we’re asking them to enforce these rules.  But worst of all, over 40% of workers say that sexual harassment has gone way up during the pandemic, way up.”

A study by One Fair Wage compared responses by tipped workers from Upstate vs. the rest of New York and the Nation.

Customer harassment and impact on tipping

Servers also responded they're expriencing more seuxalizaiton and sexual harassment from customers.

Survey findings of sexualization and sexual harassment of workers

They believea higher minimum wagewould put less pressure on them to brush off sexual harassment or shy away from enforcing COVID safety because they would not have to rely so much on tips.  Governor Cuomo could eliminate the lower-than-minimum wage paid to tipped workers by executive order.  There’s also a bill in the legislature that would do the same.

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.