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Nataki Rhodes, who works at a high-end restaurant in Chicago, has been employed in the restaurant industry for a decade, and in that time she's put up with a lot of mistreatment. A 42-year-old single mother, Rhodes earns $4.95 an hour as a server, plus whatever she gets in tips. What exactly her patrons think they're paying for is another question.

"I'm serving this table, and some guys, they'll brush up against my breast as they passing by, and then it's, 'Oh, excuse me!' " she says. "Then they come back and brush up against my butt." One time Rhodes—who is not, by her own account, a diminutive woman—was ordered to squeeze between two men standing side by side to get to her table.

For the most part, Rhodes simply puts up with it, like fruit flies in summer. "Yeah I'm gonna let someone feel on my butt so I can get $50," says Rhodes, adding that she needs the tip money to help get her son through school. "I don't care what nobody say." She was hired in large part for her looks and relatively light-colored skin, she said, and it's not as if her manager would intervene on her behalf.

More than one-third of women who have worked as tipped workers cite sexual harassment as the reason they quit their jobs, according to a report released Tuesday by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a nonprofit that works to improve wages and working conditions for low-wage restaurant workers. What's more, report authors say harassment is significantly worse in states where workers rely more heavily on tips, indicating that the overall work environment is at least partially shaped by the sub-minimum wage system itself.

"One of the most interesting findings is that there's a relationship between sexual harassment from owners and greater sexual harassment from customers," says Teo Reyes, national research director at ROC United. "Owners seem to be setting the atmosphere for what is permissible." Reyes said survey data showed most workers don't tell their supervisors when they experience sexual harassment, and when they do, their concerns are often ignored. "What they hear is things like, 'Oh, boys will be boys. They're paying customers, Just be nice and smile,' " says Reyes.

An estimated 3.5 million restaurant workers are classified as tipped workers, meaning they can be paid as little as $2.13 an hour, plus whatever they earn in tips. That base wage, dubbed the "tipped minimum wage," is distinct from the federal minimum wage—currently $7.25 an hour—and, unlike the federal minimum wage, it's been stagnant for 23 years. While employers are legally required to make up the difference if a server fails to achieve the standard minimum wage after tips, very often they don't come through. (The Labor Department's most recent compliance sweep found that 83.8 percent of investigated restaurants had some type of violation.)

The ROC report describes sexual harassment as "endemic to the restaurant industry," with workers reporting high levels of harassing behaviors from restaurant management (66 percent), coworkers (80 percent), and customers (78 percent). Perhaps most tellingly, female restaurant workers in states where the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour were twice as likely to experience sexual harassment as women in states that pay the same minimum wage to all workers.

Reyes called the tipped-wage system "outdated," adding that one of the reasons the sexual-harassment findings didn't come out earlier is because researchers had been asking the wrong questions. "We wanted to understand what's really going on, so we created this study where you didn't say, 'Have you experienced sexual harassment?' " Reyes explained. Instead they asked about specific behaviors, such as sexual teasing, inappropriate touching and pinching, or questionable orders from management regarding the tightness of clothing.

Executives from the National Restaurant Association dismiss the report as part of a targeted effort against them. "These recycled attacks are part of a national, multimillion-dollar campaign engineered, organized, and funded by national labor unions and their allies seeking to disparage an industry that has no barrier to entry and no limit to what employees can achieve," said the NRA's Katie Laning Niebaum in a statement. "The National Restaurant Association takes charges of sexual harassment very seriously."

The association also noted that the food-service industry is slightly less patriarchal than some other industries. Forty-five percent of food-service managers are women, compared with 38 percent in other industries, according to the NRA's research, and 58 percent of food-service supervisors are women, while only 43 percent of supervisors in retail are women.

The ROC report, which relied on survey data from 688 current and former restaurant workers across 39 states, comes as low-wage restaurant workers are stepping up fights for better treatment and pay. A bill pending in Congress would increase the regular federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 and reestablish a link between the tipped and the regular minimum wages. At the grassroots level, support for a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers has sparked demonstrations around the country.

Rhodes isn't sticking around for the industry to improve. "I gotta change careers. I gotta change careers like right now—I can't take it!" she says. "It's a low-wage industry and a sexual-harassment industry, and I'm not getting no younger, so this is the time for me to get out." Rhodes became a member of ROC-Chicago several years ago and says what she learned there, coupled with her experience in the restaurant industry, has helped motivate her politically. With her son starting college, she says she finally has the time to focus on herself and hopes to find some work in organizing.

For the moment, though, she's just putting up with the comments and touching at work. "You just gotta look over and say to yourself, 'Don't make a mountain out of a molehill.' In the food industry, you can't fight every battle."


Stephanie Stamm contributed to this article

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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