U.S. restaurant workers target low wages in campaign against sexual harassment

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(Reuters) - Restaurant workers in seven U.S. cities on Tuesday lobbied state and local lawmakers to combat sexual harassment in the industry by shifting from the $2.13 federal minimum wage for tipped employees to a higher “fair” wage.

Some 70 percent of workers who receive tips in addition to their hourly pay in the United States are women.

The combination of low hourly pay and dependence on customer gratuities makes them particularly vulnerable to harassment from customers and colleagues, said Saru Jayaraman, president of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) which advocates for better working conditions.

Women workers earning their state’s full minimum wage before tips reported half the rate of sexual harassment as women in the states that pay $2.13 per hour, according to a study from ROC, which has called on lawmakers to follow the lead of California, Washington, Nevada and four other states that pay the more generous “fair” wage.

“This is not about sex, this is about power,” said Jayaraman. “When you shift the power balance ... sexual harassment gets cut in half.”

Seventeen states, including New Jersey and Texas, as well as the District of Columbia pay tipped workers $2.13, a federal minimum wage that has not changed in more than two decades. New York, Florida and the remaining states pay somewhere in between.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is among the lawmakers already weighing a move to the higher “fair” wage.

ROC’s national day of action on Tuesday included rallies in Philadelphia, Seattle and Oakland, as well as actions in Washington, D.C., Detroit, New Orleans and Oakland, California.

The restaurant industry, which employs half of American women at some point in their lives, has an advantage over other industries when it comes to addressing sexual harassment because it was already advocating for a clear policy solution when the #MeToo social media movement against harassment gained momentum late last year, said Jayaraman.

Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles