No Casting Couch for Low-Wage Women, But Lots of Sexual Harassment

After a vigorous campaign including a five-day hunger strike, members of United Service Workers West in California won contract language and a statewide bill requiring cleaning and security employers to train employees and managers on sexual violence and harassment. Photo: Shireen Alihaji and Jaime Ballesteros

Sexual harassment doesn't happen just to glamorous women in glamorous industries. Since sexual harassment is about power, not sex, it’s not surprising that low-wage women in lousy jobs get a lot of it.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says the restaurant industry is the largest source of sexual harassment claims. In a national survey of 4,300 restaurant workers by the worker center Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, more than one in 10 workers reported that they or a co-worker had experienced sexual harassment. ROC says even this creepy figure is likely an undercount.

Focus groups and interviews ROC conducted nationwide found sexual harassment an “accepted… part of the culture.” One worker said, “It’s inevitable. If it’s not verbal assault, someone wants to rub up against you.”

ROC reviewed four years of EEOC sexual harassment settlements and verdicts in the restaurant industry and found that cases were filed primarily against well-known chains, including McDonald’s (the worst with 16 percent of the cases), KFC, Sonic, IHOP, Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel, Ruby Tuesday, and Denny’s.

Most often, workers were abused and harassed daily and faced some form of retaliation for complaining.

Labor Notes' Jenny Brown, who now works for National Women's Liberation, points out that the “dismal stats” for restaurant workers are connected to how they get paid: tips.


Stopping Sexual Harassment, Labor Notes’ 1992 guide, is still one of the most complete manuals out there. It has sections on member-to-member harassment, women of color, defending yourself, the legal route, and “an unhelpful union.” $6. Order here.
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For a training on member-to-member harassment developed by the United Electrical Workers, including both racial and sexual harassment, click here.

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The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United notes, in a 2014 report, that “a majority-female workforce must please and curry favor with customers to earn a living.” Men take advantage with harassing questions, gestures, groping, even stalking.

“Unfortunately, it’s just become the societal norm, and we have all accepted it and we all hate it,” a woman bartender told ROC.

Managers tend to side with the customers when workers complain. One server reported her boss's words: “Well, those people pay a lot of money for our services and, I mean, would it hurt to smile a little bit, be a little bit more friendly to them?”


One farmworker described the norm in the fields similarly to that in restaurants: “You allow it or they fire you.” A 2010 study of farmworker women found 80 percent had experienced sexual harassment at work.

Farmworker women are especially vulnerable when they are employed and paid by individual crewleaders, who thus have tight control over their livelihoods.

Janitors are another low-paid case in point, as Sonia Singh wrote this year. They’re predominantly female, often working late at night in isolated workplaces. The 2015 PBS documentary “Rape on the Night Shift” exposed how widespread and underreported sexual violence is for janitors.

In May 2016 United Service Workers West won a new master contract in California that requires sexual harassment training for supervisors and workers, and ensures that workers can make complaints to managers above their direct supervisors.

The union explored using a telenovela (soap opera) format for the training, which could be paused for participants to debrief on scenarios they’d just watched.

The union also worked with legislators to develop a statewide bill, the Property Services Worker Protection Act. The union got local mayors and unionized cleaning contractors to pledge support, and paid for “End Rape on the Night Shift” billboards in strategic locations.

When they still weren’t clear that Governor Jerry Brown would sign the bill, rank-and-file organizers decided to stage a fast.

Twelve survivors of workplace sexual violence and harassment began their hunger strike in front of the state Capitol. Many of the women read out open letters to their attackers. Most had never shared their stories publicly before this campaign.

After the group had fasted for five days, Brown signed the law, which will take effect in 2019. It requires cleaning and security employers to train employees and managers on sexual violence and harassment.




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Perhaps the women workers most vulnerable to actual assault are hotel cleaners. Apparently male guests reason that if there's a woman in a bedroom, she must be available. Jenny Brown wrote, “Workers report that male customers expose themselves, attempt to buy sexual services, grab and grope them and, in some cases, attempt to rape them.”

“Customers offer money for massage—but they don't want massage, they want something else,” said Elizabeth Moreno, an 18-year Chicago hotel worker. When she delivers room service items, male guests occasionally come to the door naked, she said.

The problem is so prevalent that hotel workers in Hawaii and San Francisco have resisted management efforts to make them wear skirts. Workers said the uniforms make them more vulnerable to groping in a job that requires bending over beds, tubs, and floors.

At the New York Sofitel, where Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, assaulted a housekeeper in a $3,000-a-night room in 2011, management changed the skirt uniform to pants and tunic, according to a union representative.

Room attendants’ safety is compromised by staff cuts that leave women isolated as they work. Some Hawaiian hotel workers on “turn down duty,” which involves entering rooms in the evening to draw drapes and turn down covers, used to work in pairs. Now management is asking them to work alone, and they say it makes them feel unsafe.

In Chicago, workers have fought for the right to prop the hotel room door open with their supply cart while they clean. Some hotel managements said it was “unprofessional” or might allow theft of items from the room.

“When we’re running water, we don’t hear the guest come in,” said Moreno. In her union hotel, a supervisor oversees room cleaning if a customer is present.

Seattle Housekeepers Get Protection

In Seattle UNITE HERE developed a ballot initiative to protect hotel housekeepers, which passed last November with an overwhelming majority. It calls for panic buttons that signal a supervisor the worker’s location.

Hotels are required to record employees’ accusations about guests, and to warn employees when a guest on the list returns to the hotel. If a complaint of sexual assault or harassment is backed up by a sworn statement from the worker or other evidence, the hotel must go further, banning that guest for at least three years.

Workers have the right to be assigned to another floor or work area if they have experienced sexual harassment or violence from a guest there.
—Sonia Singh


After the Strauss-Kahn incident, the hotel workers union UNITE HERE held speak-outs in eight cities. “These customers think they can use us for anything they want, because we don't have the power that they have or the money that they have,” said Yazmin Vazquez, a Chicago room attendant.

A 30-year hotel worker in Indianapolis, a “guest runner” on the evening shift, brought towels and shampoo to customers who requested them. She said that twice a week she confronted men who came to the door naked, propositioned her, or worse. Managers knew about this, she said, but most laughed it off.

Toronto hotel worker Andria Babbington also said managers laughed at her when she complained about a naked guest who asked to be tucked in.

“Hotels are complicit in a culture of silence,” said Annemarie Strassel of UNITE HERE. “The premise is that the guest is always right.”

Add in management’s desire to please guests and sweep publicity-causing incidents under the rug, and many workers feel pressured to endure insults and assaults as a part of the job.

If workers do report a guest’s behavior, the police are rarely called. “No matter what we say, the managers will always respect the guest,” said Hortensia Valera at the Chicago speak-out.

Still, the police did arrest Strauss-Kahn (though charges were later dropped) and, soon after, the Egyptian banker Mahmoud Abdel-Salam Omar, whom a housekeeper had charged with a similar assault. Both the New York City housekeepers were union members.

Just as is happening today with the stream of reports on media mogul Harvey Weinstein, the publicity then made workers freer to talk about similar incidents.

Managements at both hotels said they would give workers panic buttons.

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.