Just weeks into the New Year, the #MeToo reckoning shows no signs of dying down. We’ve already seen prominent women in Hollywood—the likes of Meryl Streep, Shonda Rhimes, and Reese Witherspoon—spearhead the launch of Time’s Up, which has raised $13 million for a legal defense fund that will help women who face sexual misconduct in blue-collar workplaces.
Until now, the most visible #MeToo stories have been from women in Hollywood, media, and tech. But women who work in the service industry are more vulnerable to sexual misconduct, yet have fewer options when faced with it. In 2018, #MeToo likely won’t just give voice to Hollywood types with clout. Here’s how the movement could shape the lives of women across industries, through changes in policy and culture:
More States Ban The Subminimum Wage
Saru Jayaraman, an advocate for restaurant workers and cofounder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), is most optimistic about the One Fair Wage campaign, which seeks to eliminate the subminimum wage and finally garnered the support of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in late October. “We claimed it as the first big, significant policy victory of the ‘Me Too’ moment in any sector,” Jayaraman told me. “This is actually a regulatory change [Cuomo] can make very quickly—in the next few months.”
Many tipped workers in the restaurant industry are paid well below minimum wage, which makes tips their primary source of income. That puts restaurant workers in a difficult position: Turning down or calling out sexual advances from customers could mean foregoing a tip. It comes as little surprise, then, that restaurant workers face some of the highest rates of sexual harassment; the majority of complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is charged with litigating harassment claims, come from the restaurant industry.
As Jayaraman points out, about 50% of American adults have reportedly worked in the restaurant industry. “What that means is that for millions of young women, this is their first job,” she says. “It’s how they learn what’s acceptable and tolerable in the workplace. I’ve had so many women who are now executives or Hollywood actresses tell me, ‘I’ve been harassed more recently at a job, but I didn’t do anything about it because it was never as bad as when I was a young woman working in restaurants.'”
Cuomo’s decision to eliminate the subminimum wage in New York, Jayaraman believes, could signal a sea change. (To date, only seven states have replaced the subminimum wage with the standard minimum wage.) With this precedent, the measure could pass in both Michigan and D.C., where it will be on the ballot this year. And other states are likely to follow suit soon: This spring, ROC United is hosting a conference at which state legislatures across the country will discuss how to further the One Fair Wage movement in other states.
Sexual Harassment Trainings That Are Effective—And Necessary
The restaurant business isn’t the only service industry touched by #MeToo; a recent bill, for example, proposed that hotel workers in California be provided with panic buttons. The shift is not just at the legislative level: Bernice Yeung, a reporter for Reveal who usually reports on immigrant women in working-class jobs, says she has even observed male union leaders stepping up to the plate. “I’ve seen them serve as allies and talk to their male counterparts and colleagues about what is acceptable and what is not,” she says.
Male voices can be important, both to lay bare the breadth of sexual harassment and serve as witnesses to sexual harassment. To prevent sexual misconduct toward immigrant workers, employers need to analyze—and address—the barriers unique to them, which compound the plight of women in low-wage jobs. “Employers should be more willing to take an extra step,” she says, “because there are issues like language barriers, immigration status, and the realities of living paycheck to paycheck in a low-wage situation.”
One such step is investing in sexual harassment training, though Yeung concedes that people debate its efficacy. She isn’t, however, endorsing stodgy corporate trainings. When tailored to these populations, she says, sexual harassment training can be crucial. Often, women in these jobs don’t even know what constitutes sexual harassment, let alone how to report incidents. “It’s done in a way that is couched in the reality of their jobs,” Yeung says of a janitorial training she sat in on. “The workers discovered that being shown porn on a phone by your supervisor, or lewd remarks, or being grabbed—that it wasn’t just the culture of ‘the building at night,’ as one person put it.”
Companies Forced Out Of Forced Arbitration
What sexual harassment victims in both tech and Hollywood have in common is being cowed into silence by sweeping confidentiality agreements and forced arbitration clauses. The latter is often part and parcel of employment contracts in other industries, as well: About 60 million Americans are said to be affected by mandatory arbitration.
That’s why a group of senators on both sides of the aisle—including Kirsten Gillibrand, a longtime advocate for women’s issues and victims of sexual misconduct—just introduced bipartisan legislation in an effort to do away with forced arbitration altogether in cases of sexual harassment. (California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher also put forth a package of bills that will make it easier to report sexual harassment and will better protect workers who come forward from retaliation.)
But this bill could be a bit of a long shot, an employment lawyer (who asked to remain anonymous) tells me—even with the momentum of #MeToo—given the current makeup of Congress. The more realistic goal is legislation that empowers employees to talk freely about their harassment claims; after all, employee contracts were not always ironclad. “If you reached a settlement, the settlement agreement itself could be confidential, but not the facts that gave rise to the claim,” the lawyer says.
A number of tech companies, he tells me, have already opted to get rid of forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims. Microsoft, which also pledged its support for the forced arbitration bill, is one of the few companies that has gone public with its decision. The onus will fall on individual companies, according to Miriam Cherry, a professor at Saint Louis University who specializes in employment law. Companies that are reticent, she believes, will be stirred to action by their general counsel or compliance officers. “I think individual companies can do more,” she says, “but it depends on their leadership and willingness to change.”