Service sector women reveal sexual harassment on the job
AFA leader Sara Nelson testifies in Washington. | C-SPAN

WASHINGTON—What do Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson and a bartender from Chicago have in common?  Three characteristics: They’re women, they’re union members, and they’ve both been sexually harassed on the job, or have witnessed it.

And that brought Nelson, president of the AFA and Roushaunda, a bartender at a Chicago hotel and member of Unite Here Local 1—who declined to give her last name for fear of retribution—to tell lawmakers on March 20 about conditions on their jobs. Several other women joined them.

While the #MeToo movement has come in a big way to Capitol Hill and around the country, exposing harassers and rapists ranging from prominent politicians to movie moguls to media personalities to Olympic trainers, most featured women have been in white-collar occupations. But the witnesses told the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues the problem is pervasive—and insidious—in service-sector jobs, especially low-paying ones.

“I’ll never forget one incident when I was waiting on a table of four men,” dressed in business suits, in an upscale Chicago restaurant, said Roushaunda, now an activist with her local in its successful citywide campaign for an anti-harassment ordinance.

“I walked up to the table to take their order. One of them asked me for my name. When I brought the drinks to their table, he slapped me on the rear-end and said, ‘Thank you.’ It was such a violation. I was shocked he thought he could get away with it. I told him ‘Don’t ever do that again.’”

But she couldn’t report the harassment to her supervisor, Roushaunda told the lawmakers. The slap occurred in her first months on the job; she didn’t have union protection—yet—and she feared getting fired. She needed the money.

She’s not alone. A Local 1 survey several years ago discovered 58 percent of 500 female hotel workers—servers, bartenders, maids, and others—were harassed on the job. And 49 percent of female hotel housekeepers “said a guest exposed themselves, flashed them, or answered the door naked.”

For the same reasons Roushaunda cited, others kept quiet, until the union released its survey. Following the survey, the “Hands Off, Pants On” campaign against harassment was launched, which advocated for alert buttons for the workers and won the new citywide ordinance. Now, in Chicago, Roushaunda said, even rookie woman workers can speak up and know they’ll be protected by the law, and by other staffers.

Harassment happens on the airlines, too—a lot—said Nelson, a 22-year United Airlines flight attendant from Oregon. Despite union campaigns, contracts, regulations AFA lobbied for, and more, many air carriers still have the attitude of “I’m Cheryl. Fly me,” she said.

“Even today we are called pet names, patted on the rear when a passenger wants our attention, cornered in the back galley and asked about our hottest ‘layover,’ and subjected to incidents not fit to print. Like the rest of our society, flight attendants have never had reason to believe reports of sexual harassment we experience on the job would be taken seriously, rather than dismissed and retaliated against.”

The #MeToo movement’s revelations changed some attitudes in air carrier top management, which must lead the way, Nelson said. She particularly cited the CEO of United, who put out a company-wide strong statement against harassment last year, and the CEO of Alaska Airlines, who mandated anti-harassment and sexual sensitivity training to prevent harassment not just of flight attendants, but passengers, too.

But that’s not enough. Nelson called on the industry to enact its own clear policies, to support attendants who report harassment and assault, and to make anti-harassment training part of attendants’ safety training.

“We strongly support forming a task force of government agencies, flight attendant and pilot unions, passenger rights/consumer protection groups, and organizations that specialize in responding to sexual assault and harassment.” The task force would identify training, minimum standards, best practices, and guidance for sexual incident reporting, Nelson said.

The lawmakers agreed.

“The service industry…has the highest rates of sexual harassment charges filed of any industry, accounting for 14.2 percent of sexual harassment claims filed to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 2005-2015. Regardless of whether harassment comes from a co-worker, manager, or customer, no one should have to deal with or tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace,” said caucus co-chair Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind.

“While #MeToo headlines are dominated by stories of abuse from famous men, sexual harassment runs rampant in all industries, depriving workers of a safe and dignified environment. We’ll continue to seek out anti-harassment policies that are working and find out what, if any, changes we need in our laws,” said co-chair Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla.

“Today’s hearing gave voice to millions of women in the service sector who have suffered abuse and harassment for years, all because they need to work to pay their bills, put a roof over their heads, pay for tuition, and support their families,” added Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who previously reported harassment by male congressional colleagues.

“The experiences of many of our witnesses were disturbing, to the point of disgusting, and sounded like something out of a bad movie: Restaurant servers dodging physical assaults because they’re dependent on tips. Flight attendants being called to a passenger’s seat, only to find the passenger exposed under a blanket,” she said, before citing the data.

“And when they are attacked, the message is clear—shut up if you want to keep your job. Well, we had

a clear message to send today as well: The #MeToo movement is moving on to the service sector.

Because for servers, hospitality workers, flight attendants, and every working woman in America, Time’s Up.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.