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Sexual Harassment in Waitressing Is Much Uglier Than You Think

From ass grabs to dirty talk and getting slapped by the head chef, female restaurant workers are getting a raw deal at work.

Aimee Stanton

Aimee Stanton

Photo by Darren Muir via Stocksy

"You need to remember what the fuck you are," screamed a customer as I told him to leave the bar. One night, a guy stuffed $5 down my shirt and said, "There's your tip, love." Then there was the chef that took a photo of my ass whilst my back was turned.

During my seven-year stint serving dishes on the restaurant floor and shaking up cocktails at a bar, I've been physically and verbally abused with ass grabs and dirty talk. Employers shrug and colleagues laugh. So why isn't sexual harassment in the hospitality industry taken seriously?

Legally, employers have a duty to protect all members of staff from sexual harassment—but tell that to the chef who cornered me in the restaurant and said, "I'll lick your pussy after work."

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I've seen it all; I've been called a bitch and a slut by drunk customers, been stroked and grabbed countless times, been told I'm looking hot, been told I'm looking a mess, been photographed on the sly, and threatened for refusing to sell someone alcohol. One career highlight was when one man said to me, "I'm not finished [ordering] yet, girl"; I gave him a warm beer as my own passive-aggressive revenge.

Sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee in the US. That pat on the ass? It's a violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Across the pond, it also violates the Equality Act 2010 in the UK.

A 2014 report from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization that works to improve wages and workplace conditions for restaurant workers, found that 90 percent of US female restaurant workers have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their career. Half of respondents experienced it on at least a weekly basis, with two-thirds reporting that their restaurant owner, manager or supervisor had been the one dishing it out. There are no known figures for the UK.

90 percent of US female restaurant workers have experienced sexual harassment at some point. Photo by Sean Locke via Stocksy

Emma Surtees, 22, started waitressing for a catering company when she was 16 in London. With no real regularity in shift work, Surtees took whatever work she could get. "I was part of a huge team and barely knew who my manager was from shift to shift," she said. "On one occasion I was driven four hours outside the city and told it was an 18-hour shift for a millionaire's Halloween party.

"For the night I had to dress up as La Calavera Catrina [from Mexico's Day of the Dead] and had my face painted... I also had to wear a pair of black frilly panties." Obviously, Surtees' male colleagues were not dressed in black frilly panties.

While employers can tell their employees what to wear and how to dress, they cannot single out or discriminate against a particular group of persons. Dress code policies must target all employees, according to non-profit organization, Workplace Fairness, which aims to preserve and promote employee rights.

I was slapped across the face by the chef and called a bitch because I moved a plate without there being gravy on it.

But Surtees' uniform was never up for discussion. "I lost a job for complaining. They've got thousands of staff on their books, making you totally expendable." While on another shift from a different company, she was even assaulted by a colleague. "I was slapped across the face by the chef and called a bitch because I moved a plate without there being gravy on it," Surtees said.

"He apologized at the end of the shift... 'You know how it is girl, if you move the plate early I'm going to call you names.' I've always been told to take what goes on in a kitchen with a pinch of salt. I stopped working with [the catering company] as I got older, as both I and they realized they can't take these liberties with older people."

Young women are often discredited as casual workers while their male counterparts in the kitchen demand a higher degree of respect. The National Restaurant Association states that there are 14 million people working in hospitality in the USA—61 percent of women have worked in the restaurant industry, and 37 percent of women say the first job they ever held was in a restaurant. So are waitresses simply not seen as professionals?

Read More: Where Are All the Great Female Chefs?

"I think a problem is that people don't see working in hospitality as a career," casual dining restaurant manager Chelsea McQuaker, 27, explained. "Even if you're at college [working] on the side, you shouldn't be harassed for doing your job—people just don't take you seriously.

"I've been working in hospitality since I was 13 and sexual harassment from customers and colleagues goes hand in hand with the job... On one mad evening a guy pushed me out the way with my ass; I told him that was totally unacceptable and he just smirked. My colleague saw and he threw him out before he'd even finished his dinner."

Worryingly, the casual nature of harassment within a bar, cafe or restaurant means that it is often regarded as part of the job. According to the EEOC, simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents are not prohibited under US law.

"Chefs are notorious for dirty talk," McQuaker added. "They always make passing comments and it's put down as 'banter.' If I said anything they'd call me a prude, and I'm a manager."

I'd get comments about how I like getting down on my hands and knees, when all I'm doing is cleaning the fucking floor!

After years in the profession, McQuaker has become familiar with the unwanted attention and desensitized to the culture. With some employers still taking the harassment as a joke, can it really be laughed off?

"We had a group of football players in the bar that I worked at [in New Zealand] and one of them beckoned me over," Anna Fawcett, 26, described. "I asked him if I'd given him the wrong change. He said no and encouraged me to lean in closer. I leaned over and he grabbed me and kissed me," Fawcett said, mortified.

"It was full on—his tongue was down my throat! I pulled back, ran away, and got the manager who threw him out but afterwards I was yet again told just to laugh it off... I think I was treated like this because I was new, young and a girl," she said. "The other woman behind the bar was older than me and said I should just tell them to fuck off. Rather than curb the attitude with their customers, we were just told to toughen up."

Half of US female restaurant workers experience sexual harassment on a weekly basis. Photo by Sam Hurd Photography via Stocksy

As Rosanna Hall explains, the harassment women face in hospitality is not always that evident. "I've worked [as a waitress, bartender, and barista] at seven or eight places [around Scotland] and I've felt harassed in loads of ways—like having people touch your bum or by something more casual like obstructing your way, which is a really underestimated way of harassing someone," the 25-year-old said.

"There was a coffee shop I worked in for a while and I'd get comments about how I like getting down on my hands and knees, when all I'm doing is cleaning the fucking floor! That was from my boss. When it's a high up member of staff you're never really going to be able to do anything about it except laugh it off or leave."

But Hall questions the role she's played in allowing the sexual harassment to continue. "When I worked in a bar which was near a lot of strip clubs, I think sexual harassment was probably at its highest towards female bartenders. People were tipping you down the top, cornering you, and doing things like dropping stuff so you'd have to pick it up. It goes on systematically even though you've done nothing to encourage it, so I've wondered if I'm actually enabling it?"

"Maybe if I had said that I thought it was unacceptable, it would have been different—but it comes with the job of working in hospitality as a female. We need to say it's not OK," Hall argued.

Women need to know the behavior doesn't come with the job—it's unacceptable.

But causing a scene for being 'easily offended' in an industry where casual sexism is rife will only make your job harder, and many can't afford to live without the minimum wage job. As Emma Surtees puts it: "I felt like I needed to impress as it was my first job, but I was taken advantage of," she said. "I thought it came with the territory... That's what my co-workers were telling me."

Legally you can't lose your job for reporting an assault, but that doesn't mean employers and colleagues won't try to make your life harder as punishment. In an industry based on customer tips, you can't afford to make enemies for not being able to 'take a joke'. But by staying silent or putting it down as a bit of fun, women are unintentionally giving the green light to sexual harassment in the hospitality.

"Make clear the conduct is unwanted," said Paula Chan, an employment and discrimination lawyer and senior associate at the London-based law firm Slater & Gordon Lawyers. "Women need to know the behavior doesn't come with the job—it's unacceptable. Make clear the harassment is inappropriate and if it does not stop take it up with your manager or HR department.

"Not all discrimination is overt, and even if there is no hard evidence of sexual harassment like text messages, emails or CCTV footage you should still be taken seriously. Keeping a diary of exactly what's happened with dates, times, who was there, what was said or done, how you felt at the time and how you responded can be very compelling evidence. You can then use this as evidence to give to your employer or to a tribunal if you need to take legal action."

If your employer isn't rectifying the situation, you can make a claim to the EEOC or the UK's Employment Tribunal. "There are really short time limits for lodging Employment Tribunal Claims so it's important to take quick action," Chan said. "I strongly recommend taking advice from your trade union representative or a lawyer/solicitor on time limits for a claim as well as on the merits of your claim."

"If you succeed in a harassment claim the Tribunal may issue a declaration saying you have been discriminated against. You may be awarded an injury to feelings payment [roughly] ranging from £660 to £33,000."

Sexual harassment lawsuit payouts in the USA can reach up to $300,000, not including lost wages and legal fees. Federal law places limits on the amount of compensation the accuser can receive. According to NOLO, which gives consumer and business advice on legal issues, this ranges based on the size of the company.

If these stories happened in an office environment, the people in charge would be facing an employment tribunal faster than a cheeky wink and a pat on the ass. So why is sexual harassment still not taken seriously in hospitality? Waitresses, barmaids, cooks—it's time to speak up.

As Chelsea McQuaker tells me: "We're all treated like objects by customers, and whoever said the customer is always right is talking complete bullshit."