The mask policies adopted at restaurants, bars and eateries have given sexual harassers another way to prey on food service workers, according to a new report from the One Fair Wage advocacy group that surveyed more than 1,600 workers in six localities including New York.
Customers have demanded that female food service workers remove their own masks so they could see their faces and “implicitly determine their tips on that basis,” according to the report titled Service Workers’ Experience of Health & Harassment During COVID-19.
More than 250 of the survey respondents shared representative comments from customers: “Pull that mask down so I can see if I want to take you home later,” and “Take off your mask so I can stick my tongue down your throat.”
Other workers said they experienced sexually-explicit hostility from customers. “One man actually said: 'I don’t wear a condom; I sure as hell aren’t going to wear a mask!'"
Another customer reportedly said, “Oh, social distancing, so I can’t touch you anymore, huh?”
Food service workers are also in the awkward position of endangering their tips if they annoy or anger the customer while enforcing mask and social distancing policies, the report said, with 78% of the surveyed workers reporting hostile behavior from customers when staff try to enforce COVID-19 safety rules. A majority of the surveyed workers—67%—said they received smaller tips after enforcing such protocols on customers.
“Most workers who responded to the survey report that their tips have declined significantly with the pandemic, and that this decline in tips is exacerbated when they attempt to enforce COVID-19 safety protocols on customers. As a result, these workers report that they are reluctant to enforce safety protocols for fear of losing more tips,” the report states.
Other risks the report found include repeated exposure to people flouting safety rules, with 84% of surveyed workers reporting being within six feet of at least one person who is not wearing a mask in every shift, and 33% report being within six feet of 30 or more maskless people on every shift. Nearly all respondents, 89%, said “their employer is not consistently following COVID safety protocols.”
The One Fair Wage advocates say the report highlights the challenges facing food service workers, who already have to deal with increased exposure to the coronavirus, economic insecurity, and high rates of job loss during the pandemic. They call for paying all food service workers a full minimum wage with fair and non-discriminatory tips, so that they're not vulnerable to harassment for their livelihood.
“Service workers are facing a clear crisis, unable to protect themselves or enforce the safety protocols needed to protect the public. Women are literally being asked to expose themselves to illness and death for the pleasure of male customers - and all for a subminimum wage. Now, more than ever, eliminating the subminimum wage for tipped workers is a public health emergency,” said Saru Jayraman, executive director of One Fair Wage, in a press release. “If we want to stop COVID hotspots, we must ensure these workers are paid a full minimum wage and can enforce safety protocols and resist sexual abuse undermining their ability to feed themselves and their families.” She added, "Paying workers a full minimum wage with tips on top would reduce their dependence on tips and thus their vulnerability to harassment."