by David Klemt

One Fair Wage Survey Results: Foodservice Professionals on Front Lines of Infection Risk and Hostility

by David Klemt

Over a three-week period, One Fair Wage (OFW) surveyed 1,675 foodservice workers in five states and Washington, D.C.

The survey was initially sent to more than 61,000 applicants to the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund in Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and D.C. By November 9, 2,621 respondents had completed the OFW survey online. A total of 1,575 indicated they were currently employed and an additional 100 surveys were completed by phone.

One of the key takeaways of the survey is at once disturbing and unacceptable but not, infuriatingly, shocking. Not only did significant percentages of respondents report lax Covid-19 protocol training and enforcement along with increasingly hostile guests, close to half revealed “a dramatic increase in sexual harassment” since the pandemic struck.

Increased Sexual Harassment

Forty-one percent of survey respondents noted a marked shift in the frequency that guests are subjecting foodservice workers to unwanted sexualized comments. A quarter said they had personally experienced or witnessed “a significant” change in this manifestation of sexual harassment.

An analysis by OFW of the comments shared by respondents reveals the impact that this increase in sexual harassment has on the recipients. The comments have a negative effect on workers’ sense of safety in the workplace, financial security, physical health, and emotional and psychological health.

Of the 25 percent of the female respondents who had personally experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, 43 percent reported that comments were directly tied to social distancing and wearing masks, two pillars of Covid-19 health and safety protocols.

Identified by OFW as a “mild example” of the unwanted comments being made, “Take your mask off I want to see what’s underneath,” provides insight into the overall “theme” of the harassment being made. Many guests engaging in harassment appear to be sexualizing covered noses and mouths. Indeed, other comments support this analysis:

  • “Come on, sweetie. Lemme see that pretty face under there. Take it off for me, will you? Just a quick flash.”
  • “Please take the mask off, I want to see your lips.”
  • “Take off your mask so I know how much to tip you.”

When foodservice pros rebuff these unwanted advances, the responses tend toward hostility and smaller—or no—tips. In short order, these types of aggressors have found a way to weaponize the guest-server power dynamic and seemingly fetishize required Covid-19 protocols.

Increased Hostility

Whereas close to half of OFW survey respondents reported increased sexual harassment, more than three-quarters reported increased hostility from guests.

A staggering 78 percent of respondents said they had experienced or witnessed increased hostility as a response to following and enforcing Covid-19 protocols. Almost 60 percent said these incidents were occurring on a weekly basis.

Again, the power dynamic comes into play. Nearly 60 percent of respondents reported hesitation in enforcing Covid-19 protocols for fear doing so would affect their tips negatively. That concern is rooted in reality: 65 percent of respondents said they were tipped less on a weekly basis after enforcing health and safety protocols.

More than 80 percent said tips have decreased since the pandemic took hold, with 65 percent reporting that decrease to be 50 percent or more.

Impact of Subminimum Wage

One Fair Wage, as their name suggests and their mission clearly states, advocates and campaigns for all employers in America to pay full minimum wage. The organization also calls for tipped workers to receive full minimum wage plus their tips.

Per OFW, service workers—including people who work in salons and airports—are twice as likely to require food stamps to get by when compared to the rest of the workforce in the United States. Foodservice workers, however, are subjected to more sexual harassment than those workers in any other industry. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency, has identified the restaurant industry as the sector with the most sexual harassment charges filed by women.

This isn’t a digression. The OFW’s mission for a full minimum plus tips for tipped workers would have a direct impact on community health and safety. Infectious disease experts have warned that Covid-19 will not be the last pandemic with which we’ll have to contend. According to a report released by the CDC in September, the risk of contracting Covid-19 doubles for adults after dining inside a restaurant.

Were all service workers working for a full, living minimum wage, they’d likely be less concerned with incurring a guest’s wrath in the form of a reduced tip or no tip at all. The OFW survey findings that foodservice pros are being harassed to remove their masks or not socially distance—risking the health and safety of themselves and guests, then of family and friends, and therefore the community—and that 58 percent are reluctant to enforce Covid-19 protocols out of concern for their tips illustrates, in part, how subminimum wage for tipped workers can impact the health and safety of communities overall.

The pandemic has made foodservice workers and others who work with the public, by default, Covid-19 protocol enforcers. Clearly, significant swaths of the public feel zero compunction when it comes to responding with hostility, threats, harassment, and refusal to comply.

It’s also clear that guests who react with hostility and intimidation when employees are enforcing officially mandated health and safety requirements lest their employer face fines, the suspension of their business and/or liquor license, or any other form of punishment that puts their employment at risk won’t hesitate to wield the guest-server power dynamic as a weapon. That weapon can ultimately endanger an entire community.

The Good News

A mere ten percent of survey respondents reported their employers instruct employees to follow all Covid-19 health and safety protocols on a consistent basis, and just 31 percent of respondents said their employer follows all such protocols.

Those are startling numbers since ten percent of respondents said they had contracted Covid-19, 88 percent said they knew someone had contracted the infection, 44 percent reported that at least one coworker had contracted Covid-19, and a depressing 42 percent of those who reported knowing someone who had contracted the illness had died from it.

However, there were some positive pieces of data shared by survey respondents:

  • 92 percent reported their employers require all workers to wear masks.
  • 86 percent reported their employers require all workers to wash hands frequently.
  • 86 percent reported their employers require tables and chairs be wiped down and sanitized between uses.
  • 78 percent reported their employers provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • 75 percent reported that a supervisor has told them they will have their back if they tell a guest or coworker to put on their mask whenever they’re within six feet of them.

In a perfect world, those percentages would all be one hundred. This isn’t a perfect world and there’s obviously major room for improvement. Management must step up in this time of crisis and uncertainty and embrace true leadership:

  • Respect the fact that employees are putting themselves at risk every shift. Put people first.
  • Avoid putting the bottom line ahead of health and safety.
  • Create and enforce a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy—for employees and guests. Support employees when they report sexual harassment.
  • Communicate clearly and consistently. Transparency and targeted training must be priorities.
  • Display integrity when making decisions and enforcing rules.

Foodservice and hospitality industry professionals are on the front lines, sacrificing their own health and safety—and that of the people inside their bubble—to keep the industry afloat. Ownership and management need to protect them.

Read the entire OFW report here.

Image: engin akyurt on Unsplash