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The Pandemic Has Reportedly Exacerbated Sexual Harassment of Tipped Food Service Workers in Massachusetts

Plus, a majority of tipped food service workers report that their tips have declined by at least half since the onset of the pandemic

Several tables of customers sit outside at a restaurant. Servers are wearing masks and gloves. Pale green umbrellas, closed, stand among the tables.
Servers are experiencing an increase in sexual harassment by customers and a decrease in tips since the onset of the pandemic
Greg Patton/Shutterstock

A recent report from labor advocacy group One Fair Wage details a long list of unsafe and unfair working conditions that tipped food service workers say they have been subjected to since the onset of the pandemic. The report is based on survey responses from 1,675 food service workers in five states and Washington D.C., including 134 who work in Massachusetts.

Tipped food service workers in the state say they have experienced an increase in sexual harassment from customers during the pandemic, according to the Massachusetts report, with nearly half of all the Massachusetts survey respondents reporting an uptick in the frequency of unwanted sexualized comments from customers since the onset of the pandemic.

“Workers frequently are subjected to sexualized comments from customers, the majority of which were a request from male customers that women service workers remove their mask so that the men could judge their looks, and, implicitly, determine their tips on that basis,” states the report.

Tipped food service workers already experienced sexual harassment by customers at alarmingly high rates before the pandemic, and the pandemic has just served to exacerbate the problem.

Additionally, the survey found widespread issues related to COVID-19 safety protocols. 43 percent of workers who responded to the Massachusetts survey reported that one or more of their co-workers had contracted COVID-19. More than a quarter reported that their employer had not conducted mandatory training on the state’s COVID-19 safety protocols, while an astounding 81 percent reported that their employer is not consistently following those safety protocols. (A recent report from WBUR, which found that more than 100 restaurants, bars, billiards halls, and clubs had official complaints filed against them for not following the state’s COVID-19 protocols, also suggests the problem is widespread.)

To make matters worse, 87 percent of the tipped food service workers who responded to the survey reported that their tips have declined significantly during the pandemic, with 70 percent of respondents reporting that their tips have declined by at least half. More than half of the respondents reported feeling uncomfortable enforcing COVID-19 protocols out of fear that customers would tip them less for doing so; 80 percent of respondents reported experiencing or witnessing hostile behavior from customers in response to an employee enforcing COVID-19 protocols.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker recently tightened mask restrictions for restaurants — diners must remain masked any time they are not eating or drinking, a change from the previous guidelines, which allowed diners to remove their masks once they were seated inside a restaurant.

Stricter mask wearing guidelines may help tipped food service workers feel more comfortable enforcing COVID-19 protocols, but they won’t deter sexual harassers from abusing workers. As long as the tipped minimum wage exists, tipped food service workers (and other tipped service workers) will continue to be forced to endure sexual harassment in the workplace in order to make ends meet, reports like these suggest.

Survey Finds That Pandemic Has Exacerbated Sexual Harassment of Tipped Workers [E]
The Case Against Tipping in America [E]
Hundreds Of Businesses In Mass. Violated COVID-19 Rules, Putting Workers At Risk [WBUR]
Gov. Charlie Baker Tightens Mask Restrictions, Table Capacities for Massachusetts Restaurants [EBOS]