Monday, March 29, 2021

Sexual Harassment, Women Restaurant Workers, and the Subminimum Wage in the COVID Era


Almost all people know that the federal minimum wage is $7.25. Perhaps somewhat less known is that in all but 7 states, a subminimum wage of as low as $2.13 can be paid by the employer to employees. The idea with the subminimum wage is that at least an amount equal to the regular minimum wage comes in the form of tips from costumers. This creates a dynamic that other industries do not really have; that tipped workers are wholly reliant on their customers to make any money. Of course, the restaurant industry is one of these industries that generally uses the subminimum wage and tip system, and as we will see, experiences negative effects from it.

           What does this have to do with sexual harassment?

Well, to put it simply, women in the restaurant industry experience sexual harassment at the highest amounts of any industry in the U.S. This also interplays with the subminimum wage in a big way. It has been found previously that women restaurant workers who receive that subminimum wage ($2.13) plus tip model are almost two times more likely to receive sexual harassment than those same workers who receive the regular minimum wage plus tips in the 7 states that do things that way. Men under the subminimum wage plus tips model also were on the receiving end of sexual harassment more often than men who receive the full minimum wage, though to a lesser extent.

The reasons for this are likely rooted in the economic insecurity that the subminimum wage causes. For workers that make only $2.13 an hour directly from their employer, almost all of that money will be taken by taxes, meaning that the money that these workers actually take home is made all by tips. This makes the workers much more economically insecure than those who receive the full minimum wage.

Due to this economic uncertainty, it incentivizes these tipped workers, especially women restaurant workers to tolerate customer misbehaviors, including sexual harassment as at times it could be financially devastating to call out customers for these behaviors. Management as well is incentivized the same way to not respond to customer sexual harassment due to this greater focus on keeping customers happy. The subminimum wage just puts tipped workers in a weaker position than workers who get the full minimum wage plus tips.

To sum up the previous three paragraphs, the subminimum wage has historically led to greater levels of sexual harassment because it creates a dynamic in which the worker is dependent on the customers for tips, and is thus encouraged to not talk back in situations of sexual harassment.

           What does this have to do with the pandemic? Has the situation changed due to the pandemic?

           In some ways the previously mentioned situation has become exacerbated by somewhat recent events, namely that of the Coronavirus pandemic. This January (January 2021), a survey by One Fair Wage conducted by Social Science Research Solutions found that during the pandemic more than 40% of restaurant workers have seen increased sexual harassment in their workplaces since the Coronavirus pandemic started.

           It is no secret that the pandemic has caused the number of tips to decrease for restaurant workers.  83% of restaurant workers report that they have been receiving less tips during the pandemic. The majority of those workers say that they receive less than half of the money in tips that they used to.

This leads to one reason that sexual harassment for these workers may be increasing. This is that the previously discussed economic insecurity of the subminimum wage is heightened and the already weak position of those under the subminimum wage is further weakened. This causes even more incentive to not say anything when sexual harassment happens.

           Another change in the COVID Era is that of wearing masks. One Fair Wage reported that “hundreds of women shared comments they received from male customers demanding they take off their masks so that they could calibrate their tips to their looks and willingness to expose them on demand.” This demand to lower masks is part of the increased sexual harassment during the pandemic, and is once again, more prevalent among workers who receive the subminimum wage.

           In the end, the changes in the restaurant industry during this pandemic, and especially for women in that industry have further illuminated the relationship between the subminimum wage and sexual harassment; the decrease in tips seen in the pandemic seems to lead to an increase in sexual harassment.

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