Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Exploitation of low-wage female workers

With daily headlines about politicians, Hollywood and media celebrities being outed for sexual improprieties, you might get the impression that women are finally being heard.

But, until waitresses, bartenders, domestic workers and other low-wage working women have a voice, the uprising is incomplete. These women endure sexual harassment and economic exploitation as though it were a part of their job description.

No one cares less than those, mostly men, who write the laws that pretend to protect women.

Recently I posted an item on Facebook encouraging customers to tip waitresses at least 20%. What followed was a long list of pent up grievances from women working in Wyoming’s hospitality industry. Appalled by what I read, I asked people to tell their stories about experiences working in Wyoming bars and restaurants. Several called, eager to share. The complaints included both economic and sexual exploitation.

What follows is not a blanket indictment of an industry. Not all are offenders but the offenders know who they are and so do many of their colleagues.

Several asserted their paycheck is eaten up by taxes on tips not received, tips the tax law assumes they pocketed even if they don’t. A couple claimed bosses send dishwashers home, demanding dishes be washed by a waitress instead. Why? Dishwashers must be paid minimum hourly wages of $7.75. Tipped employees doing the dishes are paid $2.13.

Some bosses cut servers’ hours arbitrarily. Sometimes it’s done in order to manipulate a voluntary resignation to circumvent unemployment Insurance claims. One said her hours were reduced in order to give “this week’s girlfriend” extra hours. These jobs have few, if any, benefits and no paid sick leave. Some talked of working while ill. There are generally no holidays off to spend with family.

Another told of physical assault. The cook threw pots and pans at her and other waitresses. The owner knew and did nothing. One told me that when she gave her two-week notice, she was let go immediately and the restaurant refused to pay the wages she was due. When another reported to her boss that a supervisory employee had propositioned her, her hours were initially cut and eventually eliminated.

The most shocking complaints were about sexual exploitation. Suffering quietly through abuses from customers, bosses, and fellow employees is such an inherent part of the job that one told me women are sometimes asked during job interviews, “How sensitive are you?” The question is designed to weed out those who might later complain about workplace culture.

One told of a Cheyenne restaurant that installed a narrow mirror in the kitchen. Applicants for server positions were required to stand in front of the mirror. If any part of her body fell outside the frame of the mirror, she would not be hired. Longtime employees were occasionally “mirror tested” if the boss was concerned about weight gain.

I was told that in one establishment, a cocktail waitress was required to change her blouse when she arrived at work. The supervisor insisted she wear a smaller size to emphasize her body.

Why don’t they report these offenses? Some do and struggle against a legal system designed more to protect employers than employees. Most don’t, first because they know the legal system is rigged against them. Second, a $2.13 an hour employee can’t afford a lawyer. Third, they can’t afford to lose their jobs and they know they’ll be blackballed by other employers.

Whether we believe Trump’s accusers or Franken’s is often a matter of politics. Whether we believe the low-wage women’s stories is a matter of whether they can feed their children.

It’s all fine that women are believed when speaking up against the Matt Lauers, Roy Moores, and John Conyerses of the world. It is commendable that powerful men are suffering the consequences because their accusers are believed.

You’ll know that’s trickled down when legislators pass laws and courts issue rulings making sure low-income working women are believed and protected from abusive and exploitative supervisors and employers.

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