Tipped Workers Face Increased Harassment During Pandemic, Study Says

By Douglas Lipsky

Long before the pandemic, tipped workers in the hospitality industry experienced sexual harassment at a higher rate than workers in other industries. Now, a recent survey reveals tipped service workers in New York have experienced significant unsafe and unfair treatment during the pandemic. 

If you have been subjected to harassment in a restaurant by a customer, coworker, or manager, it takes an experienced employment lawyer to protect your rights. Let’s take a look at the reported rise in sexual harassment in the restaurant industry during the pandemic and explore what can be done about it. 

Tips, Safety, and Harassment in New York Restaurants

According to a survey by One Fair Wage, a worker advocacy group, restaurant workers are concerned for their health and safety as customers ignore mask protocols. In particular, workers reported a significant increase in sexual comments from customers, mostly male customers requesting female servers to remove their masks.

“[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.

The survey also reports that tips have declined during the pandemic: nearly 65 percent of tipped workers report customers docking tips if they were asked to wear masks and follow safety protocols. The fact that these workers rely on tips for a significant portion of their wages makes them more vulnerable to harassment, which is now compounded with a threat to their physical safety. 

Over a quarter of restaurant workers reported they witnessed a rise in sexual harassment from customers, and 43 percent of female tipped workers reported experiencing it themselves if they refused to remove their masks or asked customers to wear them. 

In addition to reports of harassment: 

  • 44 percent of workers report that someone at their restaurant contracted COVID-19
  • 31 percent say they interact with over 30 unmasked people during their shift
  • Only 31 percent say their employers consistently follow COVID safety protocols

As restaurants in New York and around the country struggle to stay afloat during the pandemic, managers and owners are less likely to confront customers out of fear of losing more business, say workers surveyed. 

Sexual Harassment is Pervasive in the Restaurant Industry

Reports of increasing harassment of tipped service workers are disturbing, but not surprising. Sexual harassment is pervasive in the restaurant industry where “the customer is always right.” 

According to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, about 80 percent of tipped service workers report experiencing sexual harassment. 

Pandemic or not, no one should have to put up with sexual harassment in any workplace. If you are a hospitality worker and have experienced harassment or have concerns for your safety, the best way to protect your rights is to consult with an experienced employment lawyer.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.