Hair. Make-up. Clothes.
Tiffany Kirk, a 25-year old single mother living in Houston, Texas, is getting “date-ready”. The whole thing can take close to an hour, yet there is no gentleman caller to pick her up when she is done.
There is no dinner and movie on her agenda. It’s just a 12-hour bar shift.
“Their terminology is always date-ready,” she says of what her bosses tell her about how to dress. She currently works at Howl at the Moon, a battling piano bar. “But I don’t dress the way I do at work on a date. ‘Date-ready’ is not synonymous with ‘classy’.”
The date-ready outfit is her nightly uniform of shorts and a tank top – not exactly a typical nine-to-five work outfit.
All the primping is done for the customers; they are her “dates” for the night. They come to the bar for the way she looks and talks, for the ambience as much as for the drinks. Kirk is in no position to argue their preferences – she needs them to keep coming. Tips from such men pay her rent and bills, after all. Her hourly pay of $2.13 is completely eaten up by taxes. Tips are the reason that Kirk and many other women like her put up with sexual harassment in their workplaces. m88world
“There is a running joke in the industry that if you are not being sexually harassed, then you are not doing it right,” says Kirk.
Four out of five women in the restaurant industry experience some form of sexual harassment from their customers. Women living off tips report higher rates of sexual harassment, according to a report from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. In states where the tipped minimum wage is kept at $2.13, women are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment and three times as likely to be told to appear “sexier”.
“It’s crude and it’s really primitive, but it’s true: nobody wants to order a drink from an ugly person,” explains Kirk.
The prettier the person, the more money they make – it’s a direct correlation. The more attractive you are, the more presentable you are to a customer, the more money you are going to make because you are going to generate more revenue in sales and management is going to encourage that in any way they can. Granted, it’s not going to be written down in black and white in the handbook, but there are other ways that they can manipulate the staff into presenting them in a more demeaning manner.”
Findings show that 74% of women in the restaurant industry experienced sexual harassment from co-workers on at least a monthly basis and 64% on at least a weekly basis, compared to 58% and 52% of men.
The National Restaurant Association, also known as the other NRA among restaurant worker advocates, dismisses the report and its findings.
“These recycled attacks are part of a national, multimillion-dollar campaign engineered, organised and funded by national labour unions and their allies seeking to disparage an industry that has no barrier to entry and no limit to what employees can achieve,” said Katie Laning Niebaum, vice-president of communications at the NRA, in a statement.
Despite the NRA’s dismissal, sexual harassment is very real for many women in the industry.
“It’s the same thing everywhere I have ever worked, and I have been in this industry for almost 10 years now,” says Kirk, recalling a time when a regular licked hands of all female employees. “I’ve been groped at work. My hand has been grabbed and some guy pulled me across the bar and tried to kiss me. It’s disgusting.”
Management’s response? Deal with it.
Catherine Bryant, an ROC union member in Washington DC who did not participate in the survey, is more than familiar with regulars who are a tad too friendly. At 28, she has been doing the job for almost nine years now. When she is not waiting tables, she is volunteering as an intern at the World Service Authority. Bryant has a bachelor’s in international affairs and three minors: Spanish, economics and anthropology.
“Management just laughs it off – ‘Oh, you know, Johnny’,” she says. “You kind of block it out, because you are like: ‘I gotta make money.’ It’s part of the job.”
When working in Tennessee, Bryant once tried to report sexual harassment from a co-worker to the corporate office.
“The lawyer was great. When I was tearing up on the phone, he reassured me that they had my back,” she says. Unfortunately, the reality shows otherwise. “They ended up not doing anything at all,” she says, disappointed.
“When you file a complaint, you look like a bad guy, because now they have to go through this process and there is a paper trail, and they wind up taking you off the schedule or they’ll ostracise you,” says Kirk.
A third of restaurant workers said that they did not report sexual harassment from their co-workers and their managements because they feared their shifts would get worse. Worse shifts mean worse tips, which means a lower pay check at the end of the week.
Both Bryant and Kirk believe that by increasing the minimum tipped wage and reducing restaurants workers’ dependence on tips, government can help address this issue of sexual harassment.
Often, sexual harassment in the workplace is dismissed as blowing off steam, Kirk explains. The sexual harassment in question, however, is more than just harmless flirting, she says.