A union front group relied on seriously flawed polling to paint a picture of rampant sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, according to labor watchdogs.
Restaurant Opportunities Center, a union-founded non-profit worker center, released a report on Tuesday saying that the majority of tipped employees experience sexual harassment on a weekly basis.
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"This study finds sexual harassment in restaurants is wide-spread and is experienced by all types of workers. The highly sexualized environment in which restaurant workers labor impacts every major workplace relationship, with restaurant workers reporting high levels of harassing behaviors from restaurant management (66 percent), co-workers (80 percent), and customers (78 percent)," the report says.
The numbers indicate that sexual harassment is at epidemic levels among tipped employees, but the study is far from scientific, according to Ryan Williams of Worker Center Watch.
The report relies on surveys completed by nearly 700 workers across the country. More than half of respondents completed an online survey, while 300 responded to in-person interviews with ROC affiliates. Worker Center Watch located the polls online and found no screening for repeat poll-takers, nor did it take any precautions to ensure that respondents were actual restaurant workers. The open format, Williams said, should discredit the findings.
"Sexual abuse is a serious issue, but this survey does nothing but trivialize a major problem to score points and advance a union agenda," he said.
Williams also took issue with the leading nature of the questions. ROC prefaced one question by stating outright that "restaurant workers experience a range of poor treatment at their work" before asking respondents to rate workplace abuses.
"It was designed to encourage negative responses. It’s a joke," Williams said.
This isn’t the first time that restaurant agitators have attracted media attention through a flawed survey.
In 2013, an ally group of ROC, Low Pay is Not OK, released a report based on Facebook surveys about wage theft in restaurants. It commanded media attention, but was ultimately dismissed by polling experts for failing to meet basic standards for polling, such as using randomized samples and in-person interviews.
The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple blasted media companies for giving that survey credibility when it had offered test takers a chance at a $100 prize for completing the survey. That ROC study was "not good enough for outlets that have promulgated exacting standards as to what survey results are worth passing along to the public," according to Wemple.
The Associated Press (AP) has placed its clearance bar in its famous stylebook. Here’s the wire service’s filter for opinion surveys: "Only a poll based on a scientific, random sample of a population—in which every member of the population has a known probability of inclusion—can be considered a valid and reliable measure of that population’s opinions." Examples of research that doesn’t meet this criterion include various online polls in which respondents are "self-selected," often "including ‘professional respondents’ who sign up for numerous surveys to earn money or win prizes."
The survey methodology isn’t the only problematic area for ROC’s study. It also ignored important context when presenting information from third party sources. "While seven percent of American women work in the restaurant industry, more than a third (an eye-opening 37 percent) of all sexual harassment claims to the equal employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from the restaurant industry," the report says. The EEOC’s statistics on sexual harassment show that more than half of all complaints are dismissed with "no probable cause" in 2013—up from 40 percent in 1997.
The report faults the tipped minimum wage, which stands at a little more than $2.13 per hour, for leaving workers vulnerable to poor work environments. That contention, however, does not take into account the average earnings for tipped workers. The report itself notes that "the median wage for tipped workers hovers around $9 an hour including tips," which is roughly 25 percent higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
Williams said the report should be treated as advocacy, rather than objective fact.
"It’s embarrassing for the news organizations and the reporters who serve as willing stooges who publish big labor’s ridiculous and unscientific surveys. It damages their credibility," Williams said.