Several weeks ago, while waiting tables at my work, a man approached me and asked if he could take me out to dinner. I declined, telling him I have a boyfriend, he left. Twenty minutes later, he returns and hands me a slip of paper with his number on it and says “if anything changes…” Last week, I served a group of 5 guys getting lunch. I introduced myself and they remarked how nice it was to have a “hot one” and how much I was their buddy’s type. They asked what time I got off of work and when I told them I had plans, one responded “I love a girl who plays hard to get”. I smiled politely and left to help another customer. They stayed for an hour and a half and had a new quip to throw at me every time I checked in on their meal. They left me a $50 tip on a $130 bill accompanied by three of their phone numbers.
I’ve worked as a waitress in a small restaurant down the street from my college for about a year now. In that time I’ve racked up a significant amount of telephone numbers, sexually aggressive comments, and “date” (really one-night stand) proposals from male customers. It’s not flattering and it’s not enjoyable. I have a job to do and I’m a captive audience. The nature of my job is to service customers and be as friendly and inviting as possible because if I don’t then I lose out on my tips, and my tips are the entirety of my wages, and if we get bad reviews, then I could get fired.
I saw recently the viral video of a waitress slamming a customer against the wall who assaulted her by grabbing her ass as he walked by. I have never been physically assaulted by a customer, thank God, but the verbal harassment myself and my fellow waitresses experience can range from relatively innocuous comments to downright jarring. I’ve wanted to clock a few customers directly in their faces before. The service industry is largely dominated by female employees and the power dynamic between providers of services and those being serviced already creates a temporary hierarchy that people go on power trips over (we’ve all seen poor retail workers be screamed at). The addition of a gender dynamic often adds an element of sexual harassment that, especially in the food industry, women have to take it.
I decided to try an experiment. Over the past two weeks I’ve taken two approaches to dealing with sexually aggressive customers. During week one, I would politely play along with flirting and jokes and comments and politely reject direct requests for dates or sex. During week two, I would nip the harassment in the bud immediately and politely say something along the lines of “those types of comments/jokes/questions/etc. make me uncomfortable”. At the end of both two weeks I compared my tips. I worked the same amount of hours, and the restaurant was about equally as busy; any other two weeks i would see, maximum, a $30 difference. I make about $300 with the hours I work on any given week, which held true for week one. The second week in my experiment, I made $200. I made $100 less. That’s money for childcare or groceries or bills that my coworkers or other servers could lose out on for not engaging in their own dehumanization and objectification. I work this job for pocket money. Hundreds of thousands of women work service jobs to survive.
The Pennsylvania state minimum is $7.25, but for servers it’s $2.83. This “server’s minimum” is present in nearly every state, tipped workers are paid less out of employer’s pockets. Employers are supposed to cover any disparity between the server’s minimum and state minimum if servers don’t make it up in tips, but that’s not necessarily what happens. A study showed that four out of five full-service restaurants investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor from 2009 to 2015 violate this wage rule. If my bills need to be paid or my child needs school supplies, I’m not going to risk losing out even if it comes at a personal cost.
My employer has told us before that if a customer makes advances towards us we are free to politely tell them that we aren’t comfortable, but that’s the extent of what can be done. There isn’t recourse for sexual harassment from a customer that doesn’t come at the expense of earnings. I’m in a very privileged position where it doesn’t matter much for me if I lose out on that $100, but for my coworkers and for other servers it can be the difference that keeps the lights on or pays the rent.
I love my job and I love talking to my customers and having fun and nice conversations. I do not love having men stare at my chest or tell me they’d “love to see me outside of my uniform, in different clothes or none at all”. I’m at work and I’m a captive audience where customers believe they have the right to ownership over me because they know I’m relying on them for my earnings. 78 percent of female restaurant workers reported being sexually harassed while working, and many of them have no choice but to submit to it. Enduring harassment, quite literally, makes their living.