Kasey says sexual harassment is as much a part of her cocktail waitressing job as her mandatory outfit – a “velveteen vest, which is very short and shows a lot of cleavage.”
A divorced 36-year-old mother of two, Kasey spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld, and that the Indiana casino where she works not be identified, because she fears retaliation there. In her 12 years on the job, she says, she has regularly encountered crude jokes as stale as the smoke in the backroom. She has also had customers “grab my butt, proposition me for [oral sex] and even stuff a chip down my cleavage.”
That last violation was meant as a tip – one illustration of Kasey's predicament in the face of such demeaning behavior. She needs the income.
As waves of celebrity predators from politics, entertainment and the media have been exposed in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the daily abuse endured by women like Kasey has received far less attention. But experts widely agree that harassment is rampant in less exalted sectors of the economy and especially in the hospitality industry, including restaurants, bars and hotels, where more than half the workers are female.
“We find that across the hospitality industry, sexual harassment is a major problem, including in family-friendly or fast-casual restaurants, and not at all limited to celebrity eateries,” said Rachel Gumpert, a spokeswoman for Unite Here!, a labor union active in the restaurant sector. “Although the recent spotlight on sexual harassment abuses is needed, we find that hospitality workers are not among the women whose stories are being widely recognized.”
Recent news accounts about such harassment at restaurants have focused on celebrity chefs, including John Besh of New Orleans. Anthony Bourdain, whose girlfriend, actress Asia Argento, is one of Weinstein's accusers, has said publicly that he may even have contributed to what he calls the “meathead culture” of professional kitchens through his bad-boy memoir “Kitchen Confidential.”
But more typically the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gets harassment complaints from female staff at down-market chains -- Cracker Barrel, Dunkin Donuts, Applebee’s, Popeye’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and the like.
A 2016 study conducted for the National Partnership for Women and Families found that “two in five women working in fast food restaurants have been subjected to sexual harassment on the job, and many of them report serious negative health and professional consequences as a result.” That survey, of 1,217 women in non-managerial positions, found that the most common forms of harassment were sexual teasing or jokes, along with inappropriate touching or hugging.
Lisa Anderson, an attorney and the executive director of Atlanta Women for Equality, said both her legal practice and personal experience as a waitress make clear to her how women with few financial resources outside the job can feel trapped in such demeaning work situations.
“You have to keep a good reputation for being friendly when you’re relying on tips,” she said. “You’ll get regular customers if you allow it, and when you’re clinging to a very small wage, you don’t have much choice.”
It hardly helps when the upper echelons of workers’ advocates include sexual transgressors too. Lately the giant Service Employees International Union, active in organizing restaurant workers, has been rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct in its “Fight for $15” campaign to raise the minimum wage. The scandal prompted the resignation of SEIU Executive Vice President Scott Courtney, who played a major role crafting the drive, and claimed other SEIU organizers, including the head of the “Fight for $15” Chicago chapter.
There are few reliable official statistics on alleged sexual misconduct in the hospitality sector -- an illustration, perhaps, of its low public profile, aside from infamous cases like that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
A claim that 37 percent of all sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC come from restaurants has been widely reported in news media, including the New York Times and the Huffington Post. But the EEOC complaint form does not have a required field for employment sector, so it’s impossible to determine restaurant complaint totals or where the industry ranks compared with other sectors.
“That figure has plagued us,” commission spokesperson Christine Nazer told RealClearInvestigations. “We can’t confirm it.” The source of the claim, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, another labor group, did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Unite Here! has been pushing not only for more labor mobilization to fight the problem but for lawmakers to step in. In a recent survey of “women who work in Chicagoland hotels and casinos,” the group found that almost half of housekeepers had “had guest(s) expose themselves, flash them, or answer the door naked,” while “65% of casino cocktail servers had a guest grope, pinch or grab them or try to touch them in an unwelcome way.”
The group has had some success with its “Hands Off/Pants On” campaign to combat sexual harassment. On Oct. 11, the Chicago Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance “requiring hotel employees assigned to work in guest rooms or restrooms to be equipped with portable emergency contact devices” -- or, in layman’s terms, a panic button. Seattle voters approved a similar ballot measure this month.
Gumpert, the Unite Here! spokeswoman, takes heart from such developments.
“The biggest improvement we’ve seen in the hospitality industry in the fight against sexual harassment is not Hollywood’s recent scandals, but our immigrant hotel housekeepers banding together in cities across the country and winning legislation that directly improves their working conditions by giving them a lifeline against sexual assault in real time,” she said.
Kasey is optimistic. When it dawned on the gambler who put the chip between her breasts that he had crossed a line, the customer, a regular, apologized profusely, she said. Still, she added, all too often not only management but some of her co-workers prefer not to rock the boat when customers get creepy.
“Me and him have had conversations, so I know him but I don’t ‘know’ him, you know?” she said. “He apologized, showed remorse and left. But you depend on the tips, so you might say what he did, you might say he’s a jerk, but he tips very well. That’s all part of what I’ve endured and I think the younger workers now should know what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
“You’ve really got to cause a stink if you want it to change, because if you cause enough ruckus they’re going to get rid of it.”