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Report: Sexual harassment rampant in the restaurant industry

A new report found '"endemic" sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, with tipped workers suffering the worst.
Kristin Ezell lights candles with Lydia Magoura at Mina's Mediterraneo, where she waitresses on May 16, 2014 in Miami Shores, Florida.
Kristin Ezell lights candles with Lydia Magoura at Mina's Mediterraneo, where she waitresses on May 16, 2014 in Miami Shores, Florida.

The next time you go out to eat, you’re virtually guaranteed to have a waitress who has been sexually harassed while at work.

That's according a new report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center-United, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving conditions and raising wages for restaurant workers. The report found "endemic" levels of harassment, with more than 90% of women working in restaurants as tipped employees dealing with it in some form.

Women working in states with the lowest minimum wages for jobs that include tips are twice as likely to be sexually harassed as those that keep the full minimum wage, the report also noted.

Some 11 million people currently work in the restaurant industry and those numbers continue to grow, and many of those jobs are already marked by low wages and unpredictable hours. Women in these jobs forced to rely on tips for a large portion of their income, the report said, face “an environment in which a majority female workforce must please and curry favor with customers" in order to earn a living.

"If you're completely dependent on your customers for your wages, the way you’re evaluated by your customers is paramount," Teo Reyes, National Research Director of ROC-United told msnbc. "If someone says something you don’t like, you’re just going to let it slide, put a smile on it and ignore it. You don’t want to lose your wages, you want to pay your bills."

The survey looked at 688 current and former restaurant workers in 39 states, and it found that no part of the job was safe from harassment. Two-thirds of those surveyed reported dealing with unwanted attention from management, and some 80 percent reported harassment from colleagues and customers.  It also found that while women dealt with more harassment than men, “scary” and “unwanted” sexual behavior was still a part of the job for 47% of men who discussed their experiences.

Tiffany Kirk, a 25-year-old bartender in Houston who has worked in the service industry for nine years, told msnbc she feels “extremely uncomfortable” at work two or three times a week. During one shift at a job, she said, “I had a tray full of drinks, and this guy slaps me on the butt and the tray fell all over. I spilled fifty or sixty bucks in liquor, and this guy was drunk. No one was there, this guy was huge. I had no idea how he would react.”

One unnamed female server from Houston quoted in the report described being stalked by a customer, but when she reported it to her manager, he did nothing. “They basically turned the other way, told me I was imagining it that it wasn’t really happening, or the customer is always right,” she said. Finally, one night while she was riding her bike home, she saw the customer following her. "I had to change my route and go to another place that wasn’t mine because I didn’t want him to know where I lived.” 

Kirk, the bartender, said reporting an incident is an easy way to get ostracized and lose shifts. Two-thirds of female workers said they feared negative consequences for complaining about harassment from restaurant management, and 70 percent said they feared professional blow back from reporting harassment from customers.

“Often we just ignore things and talk about them later, like we’re blowing off steam.” Kirk said.

The report found that uniforms play a huge role in setting the tone in a restaurant. "If you have a uniform that is more revealing for women than for men, sexual harassment is higher," Reyes told msnbc. "And management's attitude will set the tone for everyone else. "They’re the ones telling women to dress a certain way or act a certain way. They’re evaluating their staff on how they appear sexually."

Transgender workers in the service industry were also a part of the survey, and those who spoke of their experiences were three times as likely to report verbal harassment from managers and more than twice as likely to report the same from customers than other workers. It is still legal to fire someone for being transexual in 33 states, a fact that makes navigating workplace harassment even more fraught.

Restaurant industry representatives downplayed the report ‘s significance. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association said, "These recycled attacks are part of a national, multimillion-dollar campaign engineered, organized and funded by national labor unions and their allies seeking to disparage an industry that has no barrier to entry and no limit to what employees can achieve.”