For Women Restaurant Workers, Sexual Harassment Starts with the Day You’re Hired
Anyone who has ever scanned Craigslist for a restaurant job knows the boilerplate “will train the right person,” code for, among other things, “Be young and have a nice ass.” I have two (attractive, blonde) female colleagues who got their first serving jobs at 19 on the supposed basis of their scores on the restaurant giant Darden’s infamous personality test. The first guy who ever hired me to wait tables said he liked my writing in my personal statement.
No one is innately or instantly good at waiting tables. Training someone who has never worked in a restaurant involves several long weeks of physically and mentally exhausting serial humiliation during which time she is likely, perversely, to be the restaurant’s most expensive front-of house employee, since until she is eligible to earn tips she has to be paid the ghastly sum that is the full minimum wage. The “right person” is likely to be the target, until a new right person supplants her, of so much hostility and derision from the chefs and the cooks and the food runners and the bartenders and the managers who didn’t hire her, and the other waiters and waitresses forced to train her, that the sexual harassment that results inevitably from being hired for her looks/intangibles/etc. is likely to seem, at first anyway, like the least of her problems. At first.
The dress code at my first restaurant job consisted, for women, of a black miniskirt, ballet flats and neutral makeup during the week and black minidress, slouchy boots, red lipstick and “statement jewelry” on the weekends. For dudes, it was a black shirt and jeans at all times. None of the dudes had been hired on the basis of their potential to prove themselves “the right person”; they’d all been servers at big strip mall chains and, before that, food runners and bussers and barbacks. They had collective decades of advanced tray carrying experience on us: The youngest female server had just turned 19, the youngest male was 27, and that was a fairly standard state of affairs at restaurants willing to administer Remedial Restaurant 101 to “the right person.” It would be hard to design a context more conducive to being sexually harassed by co-workers, and indeed, like 80 percent of women restaurant workers in a 2014 Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) survey, we all were.
We experienced sexual harassment from customers, too (as did nearly 80 percent in the ROC United survey) — the entire point of making female servers dress a certain way is to entice customers, not managers or coworkers. But as in any field, it’s the harassment from bosses and superiors — the guys who decide whether you’ll be waiting on three tables or ten tonight, who can choose to help you or chastise you if the hosts stick you with five two tops all at once and you get behind, the guys you see every fucking day — that really gets to you. Even the handsiest dirty old man customer has to compete with a dozen other dinner guests for your attention, and if he’s really that creepy the hosts won’t let him sit in your section — or depending on his spending habits/status/infractions, any woman’s section — again. (Also, there’s always the chance creepy old man leaves a 40 percent tip, in which case, and depending on the infraction, he is roughly 90 percent forgiven.)
I was fired from my first job after two weeks, when the guy who hired me went on vacation. The firing was done by a nervous-looking fellow who’d spoken all of three words to me and gave no reason at all. For months afterward, I was still fielding flirtatious texts from the fortysomething ex-Marine I’d been assigned to shadow during my brief employment. (He thought he could get me hired back.) My friend Liz, who worked for an enormous restaurant chain, survived hazing to win the “most improved server” award after a year during which she learned “to finally not suck,” but one of her managers regularly slapped her ass on the floor (even after she started whipping out her lighter and threatening to burn him whenever he approached) and another would regularly creep up and massage her shoulder blades — oh to have a nickel for every unwanted shoulder massage! — while she was ringing in orders.
And that’s par for the course at a massive publicly traded company with a huge human resources department. My current restaurant group has no HR department, despite employing close to a thousand people (among them a half dozen “guest relations” staffers whose full time job it is to pore over the responses to our incessant feedback emails for negative reviews.) The response to sexual harassment claims varies depending on who is doing the harassing and who is responding to the complaint: The chefs recently fired a cook for repeatedly cornering a cocktail waitress in the underground parking lot to ask for dates, but a food runner who complained last year of being constantly harassed for sex by an executive manager was simply transferred to another restaurant. Nor was there an HR department at Besh Hospitality Group, the 1,200-employee restaurant group helmed by Louisiana celebrity chef John Besh, until the publication last month of an expose in which 25 separate women accused the chef of fostering a Playboy Mansion-esque corporate culture and forcing himself (and inflicting what can only be described as two years of veritable sex slavery) upon a young female subordinate. I don’t want to make too much of this: “Human resources” as a field originated primarily as a union avoidance scheme; its practitioners are inherently adversarial to the interests of employees. But if nothing else, the presence of someone, anyone, devoted to the function can — maybe? — serve as a deterrent to the worst behavior, or a psychological comfort to someone who knows she is being mistreated. A union could help, but you could probably fit the number of unionized non-hotel American restaurant workers inside my restaurant.
Without any third party nominally devoted to employment law compliance, bosses operate with total impunity, as a friend of mine learned when her manager attacked her in the office when she was working as a nightclub bartender in her early twenties. “He was always known as ‘the groper’ and it was just kind of this hilarious joke,” she recalls. “He had an Asian fetish and that was a joke, too. I worked with him for two or three years and nothing happened. Then one night I needed cash in the middle of my shift, and I went into the office and he’s putting his hand up my skirt. I ran out, and after that he suddenly started acting really serious with me. One night in the middle of service, he called me into the office and showed me a video of me serving a guest, then immediately serving another and explained that I had just given a drink away without ringing it in — which was probably because she or someone in her group had a tab — but anyway, therefore I was being fired for stealing. I didn’t even argue. I just felt like I had no voice and would be forever known as ‘that girl.’”
It’s hard to say what exactly she means by “that girl.” Every restaurant is haunted by a few apocryphal tales of “that girl” who slipped on a piece of pasta while cutting in line for staff meal and successfully sued for nine months of worker’s comp, or forgot her hairnet the day the health inspector came and shut down the restaurant during service, or had some conflict with the only prep cook who could properly execute the foie gras parfait — and now we can’t eat in the back hallway/chop vegetables during staff meal/have nice things/etc. “That girl” isn’t always a girl — and the stories often have some basis in reality — but it is generally some employee whose defining quality is incompetence/disposability. Women who work in restaurants are exponentially more likely to feel acutely disposable in any given context, I think because we so often start in semi-ornamental roles, whether as barely-competent server trainees hired for our intangible qualities, or as hostesses hired to stand at the front of the restaurant and apologize profusely for the circumstances that led to all the riverside tables being occupied right now.
A parallel, albeit more nuanced imbalance exists on the other side of the kitchen doors, where you will never, ever, ever find a woman washing dishes (typically, you will find a Latino man in trash bags doing the job) and you will virtually never find a woman grilling steaks, but you’ll find lots of women polishing glasses and arranging edible flowers on salads and piping meticulous domes and Hershey kisses and happy birthday messages out of oversized pastry bags. Women culinary workers who venture outside their assigned ghettos are often made to feel sorry they tried, via sexual assault and humiliation: A chef I know was fired from her first job in fine dining after the sous chef she’d theretofore considered a mentor shoved his crotch into her hands inside a walk-in refrigerator. She told people the story; soon after, she was fired over a small infraction — being late for a shift. She believes they feared she’d report the assault and wanted her gone.
Which brings me to a rare redeeming trait of the industry’s gender dynamics: As rampant as sexually inappropriate behavior is, there is also a severe shortage of private spaces in which that behavior has the opportunity to rise to full-fledged assault. (This is not to say assault doesn’t find places to happen: An August lawsuit detailing the “rape culture” pervading the — unionized! — Plaza Hotel described the coatroom as a go-to unsafe space for uninvited groping, and a Texas jury last year awarded $7.65 million to a teenage Chipotle employee whose manager raped her in the bathroom, the back office and by the dumpster outside in the parking lot.) There are no private offices and very few hotel suites, and the amount of time in a day the typical restaurant manager or server or even dishwasher or coat check girl can plausibly spend away from the kitchen or the floor is measured in minutes. Most importantly, the industry itself is fragmented and dispersed, its ultimate product hopelessly chained to an old-fashioned distribution system that relies on vast armies of human laborers, not an exclusive clique of “It Girl” starlets. There are thousands of chefs and restaurants with Michelin stars and James Beard awards and cookbooks and reality television appearances, and none of them can even begin to approach, even on a regional level, the influence or reach Harvey Weinstein exerted in Hollywood. That might be the biggest reason I don’t know anyone who has been seriously long-term traumatized by restaurant industry sleazebaggery the way certain journalist and media friends have been left utterly devastated by their relationships with various “preditors” — no one person, in restaurants, can destroy your livelihood or render you long-term unemployable.
And yet over the long term I think all the women I know intend to lose the war of attrition with this industry. ROC United found that a third of women who had quit the restaurant industry after working in tipped positions did so because of unwanted sexual behavior. The diminishing financial returns are no longer worth the accumulated microaggressions — and it gets to the point where every friendly high-five between male colleagues in the line for staff meal feels like a tiny ulcer. I have been waiting tables for longer than I ever intended, and since graduating from the prime sexual harassment demographic, the rare lecherous remark is almost flattering. I look young enough that I should have a good five to seven years left before I find myself mysteriously demoted or taken off the schedule (the fate that tends to befall middle aged servers at Darden-owned Seasons 52, whose age discrimination case goes to trial this month.) But I still don’t make nearly as much money as male colleagues who regularly make stupid mistakes and get negative guest feedback and come to work viciously hungover — and neither do any of the female servers (save the one hypercompetitive twentysomething wunderkind who through sheer force of singleminded perfection and dogged sycophancy gets as many VIP tables as the mediocre bro types.) According to ROC United, full-time female servers make 68 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.
But the most damaging legacy of our profession’s institutional sexual harassment may be the lasting perception that whatever we have achieved in the industry we owe to the fact that someone, at some point, just wanted to get in our pants.