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Survey Finds That Pandemic Has Exacerbated Sexual Harassment of Tipped Workers

“He asked me to take my mask off so they could see my face and decide how much to tip me”

Waitresses with a mask and gloves disinfecting the table of an outdoor bar, café or restaurant with blonde girls at the table Shutterstock
Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food and Travel Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

A new report from One Fair Wage outlines the unsafe and unfair treatment of tipped service workers during the pandemic, and as is unfortunately expected, the current state of affairs is bleak as hell. The survey of 1,675 tipped service workers in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C. reveals that workers are worried for their health and safety as restaurants refuse to follow COVID-19 guidelines and customers ignore mask protocols.

Some of the most appalling revelations from the survey are regarding sexual harassment. About 250 workers reported a massive uptick in sexual comments from customers, “a substantial portion of which were requests from male customers that female service workers remove their mask so that they could judge their looks, and, implicitly, determine their tips on that basis.”

One Fair Wage reports tips overall have declined through the pandemic, making the dynamic between a customer and a tipped worker even more fraught. Nearly 65 percent of workers report customers docking tips if they are asked to adhere to public health protocols, and that they are “even more vulnerable to have to tolerate harassment that is now compounded with a threat to their physical safety, even life.” Over a quarter of those surveyed said they’ve witnessed a rise in sexual comments and harassments from customers, and 43 percent of women surveyed reported they had experienced it themselves.

“[A male customer] asked me to take my mask off so they could see my face and decide how much to tip me,” said one worker surveyed. Women were also accused of being rude and inhospitable if they refused to remove their masks, or asked customers to wear them, and often received even more harassment for attempting to protect themselves and others.

The ethos of “the customer is always right” often places tipped workers in the uncomfortable and unfair position of enduring abuse from customers in order to make a living wage. In 2014, the Restaurant Opportunities Center United called sexual harassment, from both customers and fellow employees, “endemic to the restaurant industry.” In its report, 80 percent of female restaurant workers reported experiencing sexual harassment from customers at some point.

Niko Prytula, a nonbinary server in Virginia, told Eater in June that they endured misgendering from guests, “because I don’t want to get in an argument with some elderly person when it’s literally a matter of my income.” That’s because, as they described, “your income depends on whether or not guests find you palatable, or performing the right way, or, god help you, attractive.” And with the pandemic raging and restaurants around the country on the brink of closure, some managers and owners are even less likely to stand up for their workers. Nobody wants to lose customers at a time like this.

The reports of sexual harassment are, of course, on top of the other horrific details of the survey. 44 percent of respondents said someone at their restaurant contracted COVID, 31 percent say they interact with over 30 unmasked people during their shift, and only 31 percent say their employers consistently follow COVID safety protocols. And “should a worker contract COVID-19 while employed by a restaurant, only a little over one quarter of workers, 28 percent, would be offered paid time off by their employers.”

President-elect Joe Biden has made a $15 federal minimum wage, and the elimination of a tipped minimum wage, part of his platform. While $15 an hour is still not a “living wage” in many states, it would at least mean that workers had less pressure to tolerate abuse for the sake of a paycheck. As One Fair Wage puts it, “Paying workers a full minimum wage would empower them to enforce safety protocols on customers and to reject sexual harassment and the life-threatening demands on women to remove their masks for the sexual pleasure of customers.”