Sexual Harassment in the Service Industry, Financial Instability, and Covid-19

By Lulu Moore

It’s fair to say the pandemic is putting a seemingly insurmountable level of financial stress on countless UCLA students. With millions of Americans currently unemployed, not only are graduating seniors facing one of the worst job markets in modern history, students and their families are finding it increasingly difficult to pay tuition while still affording everyday necessities like rent, groceries, and bills. While 35% of undergraduate UCLA students receive Pell Grants, most of us still depend on our families in some way to afford college. According to a Pew Research study, about 6 in 10 parents with children between the ages of 18 and 29 reported giving their children at least some financial support within the past year. Thus, it’s not surprising that widespread unemployment has had extensive ripple effects; a major impact being the deepening of underlying issues in the workplace: namely, sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Finding a job during the pandemic in the first place proves extremely challenging. The newfound awareness of the potential of getting sick compiled with the fear of losing your job hands authority figures more leverage to abuse their power over employees. Whether sexual violence, quid pro quo harassment, or uncomfortable touching, the pandemic makes employees less likely to report abuses of power given that their financial livelihood may be on the line. 

While there are many other factors affecting the workforce today, including racism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and language barriers, I can only speak on what I have experienced. As a woman working in the service industry where sexual harassment isn’t unusual, I have seen firsthand the complexities of this destructive behavior, heightened during the pandemic.

Across the board, women are less likely to hold positions of power despite the fact that they earn 59% of master’s degrees and 57% of all undergraduate degrees. While women have made huge strides in climbing the patriarchal ladder, the majority of managerial and higher-paying roles in the industry are still male-dominated.  But sexism and sexual harassment don’t stop at the top. Male, female, or non-binary, all restaurant employees are susceptible to experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. In 2018, as many as 90% of women and 70% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in the industry. The typical frontline runner is female, young, and working for a male manager. Female restaurant servers make up 71% of the workforce, and women – especially minority women – are more likely to be hired for quick-service and family-style restaurants rather than higher-paying fine-dining restaurants. This argument doesn’t mean to imply that only men are the ones instigating this harassment, nor does it intend to discredit the very real threat men also face in this realm. However, it does contend that these gender-based power imbalances create an environment where inappropriate behavior is ignored or normalized making employees less comfortable to confront others about unprofessional advances. Another potential contributing factor is the high turnover rate of the industry; people in positions of power may instigate or neglect these actions because they assume that the employee will leave before reporting such behavior. Regardless of the reasons behind the neglect, it’s clear that power imbalances and lack of representation make it hard for victims of sexual harassment to feel comfortable coming forward about their discomfort. 

So, how does the pandemic come into play? The turnover rate of the service industry will always be higher than other jobs, but the pandemic has definitely slowed this pace. As students, it’s difficult to juggle both school and work, but sexual harassment makes that balance even more challenging to maintain. Now, with the lack of job security, diminishing confidence in the market, and rising levels of debt, keeping a job seems indispensable; many students, recognizing the present difficulties of gaining employment, might turn a blind eye to their abuser in order to sustain their living expenses in these challenging times. So, what is there to do? 

Firstly, if you are working in any job, if you see something, say something. This toxic culture can’t be fixed through bureaucratic measures, and it is not solely perpetuated by abusers. It starts with you, and the actions we choose to disregard. That being said, the harassment itself isn’t about you; make sure you don’t develop a hero complex just because you did the right thing and said something (a courtesy that should already be expected). Further, the way you address the issue is critical. Someone experiencing any form of abuse in the workplace already feels uncomfortable. So please don’t add to the discomfort by making accusations, assumptions, or speaking for them. Simply ask them if they are okay, or if someone is making them uncomfortable in a safe, private space. Let them explain the situation to you. Even if they reject your vocal concern, or negate your genuine inquiries, at least let them know that you are an ally, a supporter and that you are there to listen when they are ready to share. 

Secondly, from my own experience, these toxic cultures start at the top. We need more women in positions of power, we need more racial and ethnic diversity, we need more LGBTQ+ people, we need more representation. Seeing people who look like us, or who share similar experiences as us, undoubtedly makes us feel more comfortable. Those who’ve experienced similar challenges will more than likely be able to relate to our own experiences, making it easier to share personal concerns or incidents. Representation isn’t a zero-sum game; more diversity of experience doesn’t mean fewer men in power: it simply means sharing the wealth, not only for the benefit of employees but for companies as a whole. 

UCLA is not a cheap school, and these are not simple times. Do what you can to help yourself financially, but remember that there’s always another door. I can’t tell you what to do if you are in a position similar to the one described above, but I hope that you’ll remember this; you are never alone, you don’t deserve hardship, there are better times ahead, everything is temporary, and I promise, you are much stronger and more capable than you could ever give yourself credit for. Everything starts and ends with you, so don’t discredit your strength.

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