Restaurant Wages and Workplace Harassment

I know a woman who works at a restaurant in DC that is frequented by many national politicians and operatives whose names and faces you’d recognize. One of the first things she told me was how uncomfortable they make her feel. Every day.

To be clear, she is the victim of sexual harassment. She has raised this issue with her boss, who tells her she has no choice but to accept it because if anyone were to complain these important men would simply spend their money elsewhere. She is a hard worker, and she needs her job to pay her bills. So, she feels she has no choice but to accept sexual harassment as a condition of employment.

Seventy percent of tipped workers are women, and over 90 percent of those women have reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.  This is not ok.

Studies have shown that there is an inverse correlation between wages and workplace harassment in restaurants. According to the Food Labor Research Center, women who earn just a few dollars an hour from their employers are forced to tolerate inappropriate behavior, comments, groping and assault, in order to secure the tips they need to pay their bills and support their families. A woman who is paid a higher wage is less likely to be harassed, because she is less likely to be dependent entirely on tips from her harassers.

Seven progressive states have addressed this issue, and raised or eliminated the tipped minimum wage. In those states, the rate of reported sexual harassment in restaurants is half that of the 43 states that have not increased the tipped minimum wage. Experts believe this is because an increase in the tipped minimum wage allows servers to pay their bills, and as a result empowers them to stand up to predatory customers.

The DC Council recently considered legislation that would do the same. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington lobbied hard against the increase and Charles Allen, who has received substantial campaign contributions from restaurant owners throughout the city, voted against the proposed increase.

It was an inexcusable vote for many reasons, but is particularly unconscionable given the readily available data on how an increase in the tipped minimum wage increases the economic security and workplace safety of women in our city.

I know our community values the safety of women in the workplace over the interests of wealthy restaurant owners and their predatory clientele. We deserve a councilmember who votes accordingly.