Female Waitresses Endure Pervasive Harassment And Lower Wages, Says Report

gender discrimination waitress restaurantRestaurant workers are five times more likely to be sexually harassed than the general working population. Servers are three times more likely to live in poverty, and twice as likely to rely on food stamps. As a new report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center states: "Essentially, many of the workers who serve America its food cannot afford to eat."

The report, "Tipped Over The Edge," was published this week in concert with some of the leading women's advocacy groups in the country, including the Institute for Women's Policy Research, National Women's Law Center, and National Organization for Women.

If you're puzzled by the persistence of the gender wage gap and the higher rates of poverty among women, the report says you only need to look behind the swinging doors of your local Applebees or Olive Garden.

Tipped workers don't get the same minimum wage as everyone else. They get the federal sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, or $4,333 a year for a full-time worker, a number that has been frozen for two decades. Employers are legally required to supplement that wage up to $7.25 an hour if tips don't make up the difference -- but many don't. And because 71 percent of servers are female, the report argues that women bear the burden of this policy.

Women are also more likely to work in more casual dining establishments, with fewer well-heeled guests throwing around twenties. As a result, female servers earn an average of $17,000 a year, compared to $25,000 for their male counterparts, according to the report. That adds up to a difference of $320,000 over a lifetime.

A third of female restaurant workers also lack any kind of healthcare, the reports states, in part because 90 percent of restaurant workers do not receive any health insurance, or paid sick leave, through their employers. This lack of benefits and flexibility is particularly damaging, since over a quarter of female restaurant workers are mothers, and over one in ten are raising their child or children alone.

Sexual harassment and assault are also pervasive in the restaurant industry, according to the report. After all, even Herman Cain, the CEO of the National Restaurant Association and former Republican presidential candidate, allegedly sexually harassed multiple women during his tenure. Thirty-seven percent of all sexual harassment charges to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry, and since only 7 percent of working women are in this sector, female restaurant workers report sexual harassment at five times the rate of the general female workforce.

"The restaurant industry provides opportunities for millions of Americans, women and men from all backgrounds, to move up the ladder and succeed," said Scott DeFife of the National Restaurant Association in a statement. He points out that nearly half of the country's restaurants are owned by women, and that women make up more than 47 percent of manager positions, compared to 38 percent of managers in other industries. He calls the report's findings "opinion surveys," and not an empirical analysis of the facts."

But particularly when it comes to the workers at the bottom of the ladder, the report insists that policy change is necessary. It recommends providing restaurant workers with job-protected sick days, having employers introduce sexual harassment training, and raising the federal sub-minimum wage to $5.08 an hour (70 percent of the federal minimum wage).

But the restaurant and hospitality industries have strongly resisted change. In 2009, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) introduced a bill to increase the sub-minimum wage to 70 percent of the federal minimum wage by 2012, but its progress was stymied by industry advocates. With little movement on the federal level, however, states have taken the reins. Over half of them have a sub-minimum wage higher than the federal level, and in those states the poverty rate among servers is 14 percent, compared to 19 percent elsewhere, the report notes.

But there remains strong resistance; Republican lawmakers in Arizona are pushing to drop their elevated sub-minimum wage of $4.65 an hour down to $2.53, and also slash the minimum wage of part-time teenage workers by $3 an hour. It appears doubtful that voters will be convinced by the proposal, however, and the pressure for reform is likely to only spread and intensify. According to the National Restaurant Association, 10 years from now there will be 1.4 million more Americans working in the restaurant industry.

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