Jane Fonda Joins the Fight Against "MASKual Harassment"

Sydney Haymond
·4 min read

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Earlier this month, a new report released by One Fair Wage and Time’s Up found an increase in instances of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry since March.

One Fair Wage, which has been fighting to support service industry workers since 2013, held a virtual event Tuesday afternoon to discuss these issues, including what the organization’s founder, Saru Jayaraman, has coined as “#MASKual Harassment.” According to the report, called “Take Off Your Mask So I Know How Much to Tip You,” restaurant workers are hearing that refrain while risking their health to serve the public during the pandemic.

Jayaraman and celebrity supporters Jane Fonda and Alyssa Milano are now calling on lawmakers, including NYC Governor Andrew Cuomo, to put forth policies that would better protect these workers. A guaranteed minimum wage, for example, would make it so these workers wouldn't have to rely on tipping to get by. “I see [restaurant industry workers] as a key sector to organize, just as secretaries were in the 1980s,” says Fonda, who has been dedicating her time to wage disparity issues and sexual harassment since she helped produce the film 9 to 5 in the late ’70s. “As women leaders and members of Time's Up, we’re outraged by MASKual harassment. We demand immediate action to pass One Fair Wage.”

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Enacting One Fair Wage legislation would have a major impact on the number of sexual harassment cases among restaurant workers, Jayaraman insists. “Women who feel financially secure and less reliant on tips feel more empowered to reject advances of sexual harassment instead of going along with these advances in order to ensure they receive a tip, which they rely on to meet their basic needs.” And the organization's new data backs this up. Jayaraman says the seven states that have adopted full minimum wage policies for restaurant workers (California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana and Alaska), "face half the rate of reported sexual harassment than states who stick to subminimum wage, where the federal requirement is only $2.13 an hour,” she says.

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The pandemic has only exacerbated issues of sexual assault and economic instability. This year, 60% of restaurant workers were unable to access unemployment benefits when COVID-19 hit, because their starting wage without tips was too low for them to qualify for this benefit. Among those surveyed, 80% said that their tips went down at least 50-75% from pre-pandemic earnings, creating a situation where they are even more reliant on the tips they can receive. Also, 60% of workers said they found it hard to enforce mask and social distancing rules with customers who weren’t complying, because they feared ensuring enforcement would affect their tips. Cue the "MASKual harassment."

A disturbing, 40% of workers said sexual harassment had gone up since the pandemic started. Workers reported hearing comments such as, “Take off your mask so I know how much to tip you,” and “Take off your mask so I can stick my tongue down your throat.” Those are just two experiences from the full six pages of comments found in the report.

“When I hear these stories of what is happening, it’s infuriating,” Alyssa Milano, another longtime supporter of One Fair Wage, said at the event. “Make no mistake about this: paying food service workers less than minimum wage is a way to control women.” Sexual harassment didn’t appear overnight in the restaurant industry, Milano also insists. “Eventually the pandemic is going to go away,” she says. “But unless we give these workers financial equity, the sexual harassment is just going to continue long after we have our vaccines.” She agrees with Fonda, who says, “We need to enact One Fair Wage and we need to do it now.”

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One Fair Wage, the org, has done what it can to help workers in this challenging time. Since March it has raised $23 million for restaurant worker relief. The organization has also recently started High Road Kitchens, which provides cash grants to restaurants who commit to transition to One Fair Wage. Renowned chefs such as Russell Jackson, Dominique Crenn, and most recently José Andrés have also joined forces to support the organization by ensuring their employees are paid at least minimum wage, regardless of state legislation. “I’m not afraid to call people out,” says Crenn. “Stop investing in restaurants that don’t take care of their employees. Start to invest in people that care about other people. [It’s] not about the profit that you make. It’s the way you treat people.”

For more information about One Fair Wage, or to donate, visit onefairwage.site.