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Service Industry Workers in the US Say Sexual Harassment Has Increased Amid COVID-19: Study


Why Global Citizens Should Care
When people experience discrimination and harassment based on their gender in the workplace, they are less likely to excel and reach their full potential. The United Nations’ Global Goal 5 aims to achieve gender equality and protect all women and girls. You can join us and take action here.

Women who work in the service industry in the US are not just worried about potential exposure to COVID-19 on the job. Mistreatment and a decrease in income are also a concern, a recent report found.

The majority of service industry workers are not making as much in tips, and many are facing an increase in hostility and sexual harassment, according to the report entitled "Take Off Your Mask So I Know How Much to Tip You," which was launched on Dec. 2.

Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, the organization that produced the report, has dubbed "maskual harassment" a new phenomenon in which workers who rely on tips do not have a choice but to be put at risk of COVID-19 and, consequently, death. The report is named after one of several upsetting comments women workers have heard from customers in recent months, according to NPR.

"Women across the country who work in restaurants are being asked to remove their masks so that male customers can judge their looks and therefore their tips on that basis," Jayaraman told NPR.

Roughly 1,600 restaurant workers in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC participated in the One Fair Wage study. 

The majority of workers, more than 80%, said they are seeing a decline in tips, and over 40% said they are experiencing an increase in sexual harassment from customers, according to the report. More than half of workers, nearly 60%, reported that they were hesitant to enforce social distancing and mask wearing with customers from whom they expected to receive tips. 

Survey participants also raised concerns about the safety of their workplaces, which are at higher risk of spreading COVID-19.

Offering service industry workers full fair wages is one way to offer employees more protection, Jayaraman explained. 

Workers who don't rely soley on tips and live in the seven states that eliminated the subminimum wage — which allows tipped workers to make as little as $2.13 per hour — report half as much harassment, One Fair Wage found. 

Lack of action to protect service industry workers threatens some of the most vulnerable populations. Service industry workers in the US are more likely to be among the working poor, compared to other industries, and were among the hardest hit during the pandemic. Black, Latinx, women, youth, and workers with less education are also more likely to work in the hospitality industry, and layoffs due to the pandemic in the industry are only deepening inequality further, according to the thinktank Brookings Institute. 

The National Restaurant Association said in a statement issued to NPR that it condemns sexual harassment and will continue to address it through workplace training programs. The association also said it would consider discussing industry wages and how reform could assist the economic recovery of workers and restaurant owners.

Advocates are continuing to call for policies that promote income security, workplace safety, and health and family leave benefits to support service industry workers impacted by the pandemic.