Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: BE HEARD Act confronts workplace sexual harassment, promotes women’s voices

On Tuesday, U.S. Reps. Katherine Clark, Ayanna Pressley, Elissa Slotkin and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, as well as Sen. Patty Murray, announced the Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination — BE HEARD — in the Workplace Act. This bill would increase transparency surrounding sexual harassment, increase the rights of victims and end the tipped minimum wage.

Ending the tipped minimum wage would help those who are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual harassment: service workers. In Massachusetts this year, a state bill called for the elimination of the state’s “sub-minimum wage” for tipped workers.

The lawmakers — Massachusetts Sen. Patricia Jehlen and Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier — said women comprise nearly 70 percent of tipped workers in the state.

Waitresses especially experience frequent, grossly inappropriate instances of sexual harassment. Ninety percent of women in the U.S. restaurant industry have reported cases of unwanted sexual advances at work. More than half of the women reported these interactions to happen weekly.

Yet because waitresses currently depend on tips given by customers — including those behind the harassment — to earn minimum wage, they often do not have much of a choice in handling and reporting customers’ unwanted advances. To address the harassment could cause a notable drop in tips and the waitresses’ overall earnings.

Ending the tipped minimum wage will help reshape the power dynamic that gives power to customers and allows for a high rate of sexual harassment.

Waitresses, hotel workers and other tipped workers are especially vulnerable to harassment because they are dependent on the clients for much of their income. Some of these clients feel they have the authority to make crude remarks or physical gestures that constitute harassment.

The BE HEARD Act would also lengthen the time workers can report harassment and would create grants to support legal assistance for lower-income workers. Empowering women, especially those who are most vulnerable to sexual harrasment, is essential. Ending a tipped minimum wage would also provide for better economic welfare for these vulnerable populations.

This bill would also close the gender discrimination loophole. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of gender, which includes sexual harassment. But according to Vox, employers with fewer than 15 workers are exempt from this law, and as a result, 12 million workers are not under the same federal protections as other workers.

It’s important that measures are also taken to increase awareness about how to report sexual harassment. In the restaurant industry, where there may not be a human resources department, reporting sexual harassment can be difficult. What’s more, young women who work in the service industry may be unaware of how to go about reporting harassment claims.

The BE HEARD Act is a necessary step toward increasing the rights of women in the workplace. If passed, this bill would provide real, impactful measures to help end sexual harassment.

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