The women who wait tables in Humboldt County are teenagers, grandmothers, artists, teachers, musicians and students. But ask any who have been in the industry a few years about sexual harassment and you'll likely hear what the Journal heard over and over from the women we spoke to: "We've all got stories." Each asked to have their names withheld out of concern for future employment and personal safety.
Given the endemic scale of the problem, it was not terribly surprising Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn suggested during a Eureka Chamber of Commerce fundraising auction he hosted that a restaurant owner might "serve topless" if the bidding for the dinner her business donated went high enough. As awful as it was coming from an elected official at a public event, demeaning female restaurant workers, particularly those who work for tips, is business as usual, according to those we talked to.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Humboldt was home to 323 bartenders and 1,393 servers in 2020, most of whom earn minimum wage plus tips. In a culture of "the customer is always right," female servers are overwhelmingly subjected to mistreatment. The U.C. Berkeley Food Labor Research Lab conducted a 2021 study that found 76 percent of tipped female restaurant workers have experienced sexual harassment on the job, the highest rate of any reporting industry. Local servers say that abuse comes from both bosses and customers.
"People come up to you and just stare at your boobs and your butt and they make comments and some of them touch you and you just have to keep smiling," says one career server. From a young age, she learned quickly not to make a fuss over mistreatment and occasionally allow herself a brief, private cry until she can steel herself to go back on the floor. "That's just my job." At one establishment, she says, "My butt was grabbed constantly," with some men even reaching around the side of a bar she was tending. "I don't know what I was more upset about — people reaching around to grab my butt or to grab drinks," she says with a grim laugh. But to call out harassment in a small community like Humboldt would be, she fears, career ending.
More than one interviewee mentioned men at private catering gigs being even more aggressive and throwing their arms around the women, who had to force smiles and gracefully extricate themselves without making customers or management angry. One recalled groomsmen at a wedding complaining, "Come on, we hired you for the wedding; you have to do what we say."
A working mother who's been waiting tables for decades says her first experiences with harassment started when she was a teenager and her boss repeatedly made inappropriate comments when they were alone, sometimes insisting she drink alcohol with him or be fired. According to the U.C. Berkeley study, neither abuse of underage girls nor threats are uncommon, with 98 percent of female servers experiencing retaliation after reporting an incident, whether in the form of physical intimidation, shunning, loss of shifts, firing or assault.
Having one's economic survival tethered to cheerful compliance with sexist or degrading behavior and comments can feel like a trap. Tips are what raise a server's income to a living wage but for some customers, the line blurs between working for tips and sex work.
The bartender says it's not unheard of for a guest at an event to proposition a server for paid sex, and each of the women the Journal spoke to has had customers stuff money in their tops, as one might at a strip club — only strip clubs have stricter rules about touching and bouncers who enforce them. Without those protections, things can get scary quickly. A woman who's now a restaurant manager, and has also been groped and propositioned on the job recounts, "I've had people shove $50 bills in my shirt and tell me they'd be waiting for me in the parking lot." That wasn't the only time she'd asked a co-worker to walk her to her car.
In the 2010s, the working mother recalls a trio of law enforcement officers coming weekly to the restaurant where she worked. She says they'd pat their laps and ask the women servers to sit on them. Sometimes, she says, they'd shove bills in the women's tops or waistbands, telling them, "How about you come sit on my lap for a minute, I'll give you a big tip." Other times, she says, they'd toss coins down the servers' shirts. It was humiliating, she recalls, but the prospect of telling off an armed cop was scary.
She works elsewhere now but, recently, a male customer showed up and yelled at her, incensed she hadn't called him, saying he'd been leaving his number on his receipts.
The U.C. Berkeley study found that harassment actually worsened during the pandemic, with customers seemingly taking advantage of the financial straits so many servers landed in as restaurants closed, and tables (and therefore tips) were reduced. Even as servers bore the brunt of customers' ire over masking and other restrictions, the women among them were also experiencing more sexual harassment.
Sometimes, the bartender says she feels torn between telling younger women just starting out in the restaurant business how to survive in the harsh reality they're entering — keeping a smile and not complaining — and encouraging them to stand up for themselves.
"It feels like I'm part of the grooming and that disgusts me," she says with a pause. "You try to be protective but it's like, 'Well, do you want to have a job?'"
Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.