Business & Tech

Sexual harassment prevalent among tipped workers in Boston

Marie Billiel says sexual harassment happens frequently at restaurants in Massachusetts.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Marie Billiel saids sexual harassment happens frequently at restaurants in Massachusetts.

When Marie Billiel was a food server, sexual harassment was part of the job. She was locked in the walk-in cooler with male co-workers, whistled at, and touched and kissed against her will, she said. She endured comments about her body and persistent requests for dates.

Such behavior is widespread in the Greater Boston restaurant industry, according to a new report by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, occurring at a much higher rate than in any of the 11 other major cities studied by the New York-based worker advocacy group. One in three tipped workers surveyed in Boston — servers, bartenders, bussers, and food runners — said they have been sexually harassed at work, compared with no more than one in five in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities.

Tipped workers, nearly 70 percent of whom are women in the Boston area, are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment because they depend on gratuities for the majority of their income, according to Restaurant Opportunities, which surveyed 500 workers at fast food, casual, and fine dining establishments in and around Boston.

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A server who rebuffs a customer’s advances could be punished with a small tip — or none at all. In Billiel’s experience, it was mainly the cooks who came on to her, and if she resisted, they would retaliate, she said, purposely preparing her customers’ orders slowly, or incorrectly, in an attempt to sabotage her tips. Likewise, managers would seat fewer people in her section, bringing down her gratuities.

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“It’s sort of understood that kitchens aren’t for the faint of heart,” said Billiel, 27, who has worked as a server in several restaurants around the state and is now a manager at Café Luna in Cambridge.

In Massachusetts, where the cost of living is high and the tipped minimum wage is lower than in half the states in the country, wait staff are even more beholden to co-workers and customers to make money, said Saru Jayaraman, codirector of the restaurant workers advocacy group. The gap between the state’s tipped minimum of $3.35 an hour and the regular minimum of $10 an hour is also wider than in almost any other state, creating what Jayaraman calls “legalized gender pay inequity.” (The minimums are going up to $3.75 and $11 on Jan. 1.)

The large population of college students in Boston, who might be more prone to drunkenly hit on waitresses and bartenders, could also contribute to the higher rate of sexual harassment, Jayaraman noted. And the fact that Massachusetts is a liberal state where people might be more attuned to inappropriate behavior could drive up the number of people reporting it, she said.

Regardless of why it occurs, sexual harassment is a bigger issue for servers, bartenders, and other tipped employees, who in Boston reported twice the rate of unwanted sexual advances by customers, compared with cooks and dishwashers, who don’t rely on tips.

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“When a woman is subject to the whims of customers, she has to subject herself to objectification in order to feed her family,” Jayaraman said. “If you are universally seen as vulnerable because you earn those tips, then of course everybody — your coworkers, your managers, your customers — sees you as an object.”

In Boston, 35 percent of tipped workers said they had been sexually harassed by customers; 30 percent said they had been hit on by coworkers; and 18 percent by managers.

The center is leading a movement to do away with a lower minimum wage for tipped workers, maintaining that not only would it alleviate sexual harassment but it would guarantee servers and bartenders a more steady income. On Tuesday, Maine residents voted to abolish its tipped minimum wage and raise the statewide minimum for all workers to $12 by 2024 — making Maine only the eighth state without a separate wage for tipped workers. Legislation has been introduced to abolish the tipped minimum wage in Massachusetts, and state Senator Patricia Jehlen plans to refile the bill again next year.

In a 2014 report, the Restaurant Opportunities group found that workers who counted on tips for the majority of their income were twice as likely to be sexually harassed as workers in states that don’t have a lower minimum wage for tipped workers. In states that do have a lower wage for tipped workers, managers are three times as likely to encourage women to dress sexier by wearing low-cut, tight clothing, according to the center.

A Cambridge server quoted in the study said she has been told to come to work with a “first date look” in order to get more tips. And when someone comes on to her, she struggles with her response. “I have to think of a way to say ‘No’ that doesn’t sound like ‘No,’ ” she said in the report, “because my tip could depend on it or my job could even depend on it.”

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Nationwide, more than a third of all sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry, according to a Restaurant Opportunities Center analysis.

When Josh Lewin opened his restaurant Juliet in Somerville earlier this year, he and his partner decided on a no-tipping policy. All the servers are paid $10-$15 an hour and receive profit sharing. The decision was based on creating a more professional environment, not just minimizing sexual harassment, Lewin said, but all of his workers have told him they feel less vulnerable than they did when they were working for tips because they aren’t relying on others for their income.

In the restaurants where he has worked, Lewin said: “Being a female staff member is accepting that I will be sexually harassed today.”

In the past few years, the restaurant industry in Greater Boston has expanded to become the fourth largest private sector employer, according to the study, with more than 170,000 employees. Across the country, 40 percent of minimum wage employees work in the restaurant industry, half of whom make tips.

The sheer size of the industry means instances of inappropriate behavior are bound to take place, said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, especially when you consider that wait staff and other front-of-the-house employees can interact with hundreds of guests a day. If these workers report more instances of sexual harassment, it’s not because of their reliance on tips, Luz said: “There’s just a higher chance that something inappropriate could occur.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com.