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Slaps, Gropes and Comments ‘Non-stop’

Forced to be ‘sexy’ at work, servers reveal the toll on body and soul. Second in a series.

Rachel Sanders 8 Feb

Rachel Sanders is a Vancouver journalist, editor and photographer. Her work has been broadcast on CBC Radio and has appeared in the Toronto Star, the Georgia Straight, and the Victoria Times-Colonist. Find her on Twitter here.

This report is part of The Tyee’s reader-funded B.C. 2017 election coverage. To learn more about becoming a Tyee Builder, go here.

The waitresses called him Googly Eyes. Because no matter where they were or what they were doing, whenever they looked over he’d be watching them.

Every day around lunchtime, Googly Eyes would show up at the restaurant where Laura worked. He’d sit at the bar, order one iced tea, and stay for hours staring at the servers as they scurried around the restaurant in their short skirts and high heels. Late in the afternoon he’d leave. Then he’d come back at dinnertime and do it again.

“He would make weird comments under his breath and mutter at the female staff and stare at them. It was so creepy,” says Laura.

She’d been working in restaurants for close to a decade at that point. She was used to weirdos and low-level harassment. But this was different. We need to do something about this guy, she told her manager. He brushed her off. Laura persisted. He’s making every woman who works here uncomfortable, she said.

His response infuriated her.

“He said, ‘Well you knew what you were asking for when you decided to work here. You knew what you were going to have to wear and the attention you were going to get. You signed up for that. That’s your problem.’”

In Canada, nearly 80 per cent of food and beverage servers are women. For 15 years, Laura was among them. From British Columbia to Alberta, from sports bars to nightclubs to classy lounges, she’s heard the message that waiting tables means “signing up for” harassment over and over again.

Laura’s restaurant work experience wasn’t all bad. She loves the industry, actually. Most of the time, serving is fun. She met her best friends in restaurants. She had supportive managers who had her back when customers got difficult. Sometimes they were even in the same restaurants where other managers told her to suck it up when she complained about harassment.

But the restaurant industry, say more than half a dozen servers like Laura who were interviewed for this story, is like the Wild West: the rights of its denizens depend on the morality and goodwill of its sheriffs. Sexism has plagued the industry forever. But, as detailed in yesterday’s piece decisions made by the B.C. government only make it worse. Laura doesn’t understand why officials don’t seem to care.

“At a time when it’s understood that treating women this way is unacceptable in almost every HR department across Canada,” she says, “I don’t understand how the restaurant industry slips through the cracks.”

Some experts blame B.C’s employment policies. The liquor server minimum wage, brought in in 2011, makes servers more reliant on tips — meaning their income is more dependent on keeping customers happy. What’s more, funding cuts at the Employment Standards Branch leave servers vulnerable in the face of what many say is an industry rife with employment rights violations. These policies help reinforce the industry’s pervasive sexism.

A few days after complaining to her manager about Googly Eyes, Laura was working a day shift. Googly Eyes was back in his usual seat at the bar, leering at the servers. And then the police arrived.

“They walk right into the restaurant, down to where he’s sitting at the bar, handcuff him and drag him out,” she says.

News came through the restaurant grapevine that Googly Eyes had warrants out for his arrest for attempting to sexually assault a server at another restaurant and for following servers home from work.

“It was some sort of vindication for me that we weren’t imagining it,” says Laura.

But the experience was demoralizing. She felt betrayed and belittled. It confirmed what she’d suspected: her role in her workplace was ornamental, her personal safety unimportant.

‘It’s about an experience’

The restaurant that Googly Eyes frequented was part of a chain that cultivates a lounge-style atmosphere. The servers are beautiful. Their heels are high. Their skirts stop at least two inches above their knees. Their makeup is flawless. They’re selling you more than just your dinner.

“It’s not just about food, it’s about an experience. That’s what every restaurant is selling,” explains Laura, who, like other servers interviewed for this story, asked that her identity be hidden for fear of losing out on work opportunities. “Everyone’s coming in for an experience, you’re giving them whatever experience they want.”

Beautiful waitstaff are often part of the experience of dining out. And it leads to barely concealed, discriminatory hiring policies. Many servers say they’ve seen managers jot codes onto incoming resumes to rate a job candidate’s physical attractiveness. To be a server, said one woman who used to work in a high-end downtown Vancouver restaurant, you have to have “a base level of physical attractiveness.”

The attractiveness standard applies to men, as well, servers say. But, they often rush to add, men aren’t forced to wear uncomfortable shoes. And it’s the shoes that inspire the most outrage. Of the eight women interviewed for this story, six complained about dress codes requiring high-heeled shoes.

“I would ask to take the heels off. Like, ‘My feet are bleeding, can I please put on my flats?’” says Emily, a 24-year-old server who’s been working in restaurants for a decade.

“I would get met with the response: ‘Oh, well, you can take them off for five minutes but you have to put them back on.’ I used to have Band-Aids all over my feet,” she says. She left that job and now works in a restaurant where she can wear what she wants.

Morgan worked for nearly two years in a downtown Vancouver sports bar that insisted she wear two-inch heels. With slippery laminate kitchen floors, she says, accidents were inevitable.

“At least once in any given server’s time you’d slip and fall so everyone would see what you were wearing underneath your skirt,” she says. “They were super tight skirts, too, so it didn’t leave too much to the imagination.”

Morgan looked into provincial rules about safe footwear in the workplace. She doesn’t understand how employers are allowed to make servers wear two-inch heels. 

Lorne Scarlett, an industry specialist working in the Tourism and Hospitality industry with WorkSafeBC, says the agency is aware that some restaurants in the province still require servers to wear high-heeled shoes.

“We as an organization don’t endorse that, by any means,” he says.

But WorkSafeBC only has prescriptive regulations around footwear in high-risk industries such as construction and forestry. For the lower-risk restaurant industry, the regulation simply calls for “appropriate footwear.” WorkSafeBC recommends that restaurants institute their own policies around footwear, but many don’t. And even among the ones that do, “appropriate” is open to interpretation.

What is written into WorkSafeBC regulations, says Scarlett, is that workers have the right to refuse unsafe work.

“If they feel that it’s unsafe for them to wear those heels, they have a right to refuse. They can’t be fired, they can’t be disciplined for it,” he says.

But a third of the industry is made up of young workers. Many of them don’t know their rights. And even when they do, they’re unlikely to stand up for them. They know, after all, that many employers in this industry consider them disposable.

‘I still get nightmares’

Morgan considered protesting the shoes she was forced to wear. But in the restaurant industry, complaining is the way to lose hours and get scheduled for less-lucrative shifts. She needed the money. If you’re worried about paying your bills, she says, you’re not going to take the risk of flouting a dress code.

Wearing heels took a toll on Morgan’s body. At 23, she was already starting to have problems with her knees and her hips. She finally quit the sports bar and found a job at a high-end burger restaurant. She wears flats to work now. But a year and a half later, her feet and hips still give her problems.

Tegan spent 14 years working in restaurants. Serving builds character, she says, but the work can be soul crushing.

“I won’t go so far as to say I have PTSD, but I haven’t served in two years and I still get nightmares,” she says. “It’s not a good environment."

High heels are one of the subjects that get her fired up, too.

“It’s almost as if it’s the hill these restaurants are going to die on,” she says. “Servers can come in with their hair askew, last night’s makeup on, glasses, whatever else, but if their fucking shoes aren’t right, they’re out. It’s like a minimum sexiness level.”

She knows attractive wait-staff contribute to a restaurant’s atmosphere. And she notes that she usually made better money when she spent more time on her appearance.

“On the days when you really make an effort with your makeup and you make your eyebrows look great, you see that reflected in your tips,” she says.

And she admits that admiration from customers — offered in words and cash — often gave her a boost. Everyone likes to hear that they’re pretty. Hearing, with a pleasant smile, customers make flirtatious remarks is part of the job, say many servers. Some enjoy it. But flirting can easily cross the line to harassment.

Tegan’s voice hardens and rises when asked how she felt about the rule at her last restaurant job that required her to wear a cocktail dress and two-inch heels. What bothers her, she says, is that the sexiness standard is unevenly applied.

“If your restaurant is branded as ‘sexy,’ that’s not extended to the men,” she says.

Male servers aren’t expected to dress like Chippendales, she says. Can you imagine a waiter wearing a sleeveless dress shirt with a bowtie?

“Why is it socially accepted and why is it accepted industry-wide that women get to be objectified in that workplace but men don’t get to be? It’s predatory,” she says.

Trial by fire

Laura can’t even remember all of the incidents of harassment she experienced during her 15 years in the industry. She rattles off as many as she can think of.

“I’ve had employers make comments about my body. I’ve had male managers make comments about the way my butt looks, the way my boobs look, non-stop. I’ve had them make comments about the way my outfit looks on me. I’ve had male managers grab me. I’ve had my ass smacked,” she says.

Her eyes snap as she works her way through the long list of sexual comments, uninvited gropes and other assorted indignities.

This kind of behaviour is just the culture in a lot of restaurants, she says. “It’s just kind of normal, it’s not a big deal, whatever.”

Supportive managers — most often found in restaurants with strong management training — have a big influence on workplace culture, she says. But there’s really no way to know what management is like until you’re on the job.

Many of the servers interviewed for this series said the agony of their work — physical and mental — causes them to dream of an escape. But low wages and variable hours make it hard to get enough financial traction to make a switch to another line of work.

For Laura, the decision arrived while her world, literally, burned down around her.

After 15 years and a dozen different restaurants, she’d wound up tending bar in Fort McMurray. The dress code there was the worst one yet. You could see right up the A-line miniskirts whenever a server bent over or stretched up to reach a glass. Laura led a protest, convincing her fellow servers to wear jean shorts instead. They lost that battle, got scolded mercilessly in a staff meeting.

Then, one day last May, Laura saw all that disappearing behind her in the rear view mirror of her boyfriend’s pickup truck. The largest wildfire in Albertan history was engulfing Fort McMurray. They were fleeing for their lives.

“When we were evacuating the city, I had this feeling of relief,” she says. “Which is bizarre: to feel relief when there’s this natural disaster happening. But I felt so trapped working in that restaurant.”

The inferno brought clarity. She’s back in Vancouver now where she’s gone “cold turkey, no restaurants.” She’s been job-hunting since June, getting by on temp contracts, Airbnb-ing her apartment for extra cash.

“It’s really hard to get a job. It’s really, really, really hard to get your foot in the door anywhere,” she says.

Laura wishes that employers understood that restaurant work teaches you to hustle hard for eight straight hours and get along with all kinds of people. But a resume full of restaurant work doesn’t get much respect. She’s realized now that she needs more education to boost herself out of the industry.

Laura is applying to a couple of Masters programs. The one she most hopes to attend focuses on public policy. Laura has decided she wants to make a difference in the world. She plans to specialize in labour rights.

Part three: Seven ways to clean up B.C.’s sexist, precarious restaurant workplaces.  [Tyee]

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