Low-Wage Workers Say #MeToo Movement Is A Chance For Change The movement has galvanized workers in low-wage industries to shine a light on sexual harassment and assault. Advocates are pushing for changes including higher wages and better reporting tools.
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Low-Wage Workers Say #MeToo Movement Is A Chance For Change

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Low-Wage Workers Say #MeToo Movement Is A Chance For Change

Low-Wage Workers Say #MeToo Movement Is A Chance For Change

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Gaming industry tycoon Steve Wynn is denying charges that he sexually abused some of his employees. Restauranteurs John Besh and Mario Batali have stepped away from their businesses amid similar allegations. These men gained prominence in industries where the staff is largely female, low-paid and where sexual harassment runs rampant. Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Isabel Escobar recalls climbing the stairs carrying cleaning supplies at a client's home in Chicago. The owner's adult son stood waiting for her on the landing naked. Escobar turned and fled.

ISABEL ESCOBAR: (Through interpreter) That was etched in my person. It cannot be erased - the fear, the distrust and my lack of confidence.

NOGUCHI: That was 15 years ago. Escobar, now 59, survived domestic violence at home and harassment as a housekeeper. She says speaking out sometimes met with threats. One client told her he would report Escobar, illegal immigrant, to immigration.

ESCOBAR: (Speaking Spanish).

NOGUCHI: "I fight because I don't want this to happen to other women," she says. The campaign to speak out against such abuse began with women in Hollywood and in the media, those in positions of relative power and privilege. Now, women in retail, agriculture and domestic work, where harassment rates run very high, say they too are starting to feel the impact of the Me Too movement.

VALERIE BIEGA: Yeah, the vibe is definitely that this is our shot to make a change - like, a lasting change.

NOGUCHI: Valerie Biega is 25 and a sous chef who has worked across the U.S.

BIEGA: I had co-workers who - sorry, talking about it just got me a little jittery.

NOGUCHI: Biega fielded comments about her backside every time she bent over or was alone in a walk-in cooler.

BIEGA: It's at the point where it's happened so much that I instinctively shoot up as soon I hear a walk-in door open behind me.

NOGUCHI: She's perfected a stone-faced response she calls gray rock and says she's sharing these tips with other female kitchen workers online. Outside Cleveland, Moriah Montalvo is a social work student and concession stand cashier whose mother also faced harassment in the restaurant industry.

MORIAH MONTALVO: She quit because of it, and she, like, says she never would go back.

NOGUCHI: Her mom never spoke up. Montalvo does, but wants to see more than just talk.

MONTALVO: Social movements are awesome, and they need to happen. However, they can be short-lived. And so it's not about just speaking out, it's about something else has to come behind it and sustain it.

NOGUCHI: Indeed, Lita Farquhar worries such systemic change won't come. For the last decade, she has waitressed in New Orleans, home of Chef John Besh, who faces numerous charges of sexual harassment.

LITA FARQUHAR: I mean, he just got to retire early. There weren't really any consequences for him.

NOGUCHI: Farquhar notes managers can retaliate by assigning bad shifts or less-desirable work. It's also not easy to defy a culture where the customer is always supposed to be right.

FARQUHAR: It's really hard when a customer sexually harasses you because, as a server, I make 2.13 a hour, and I really rely on tips.

NOGUCHI: A majority of states allow restaurants to pay waitstaff who earn tips less than the minimum wage, as low as $2.13 an hour. For Saru Jayaraman, president of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, that is the main problem.

SARU JAYARAMAN: Seventy percent of these workers who live on the tip minimum wage are women and they suffer from three times the poverty rate and the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry because they must put up with all kinds of inappropriate customer behavior.

NOGUCHI: Seven states do not permit a subminimum wage, and according to a 2014 study by Jayaraman's group, harassment rates there are half that of states that permit the lower wage. There are additional policy changes other worker advocates say could help in many sectors, not just restaurants. One is to eliminate fine print employment contracts that require workers to keep harassment claims private.

Farmworker Teresa Arredondo says she wants to see changes making it easier to report harassment. Arredondo, who is 49, last April survived an attempted rape by her supervisor. After she reported the incident, she says the farm's owner fired her attacker but also cut Arredondo and the 50-woman crew she oversees in the fields. She anguished over the loss of work but says she doesn't regret speaking out.

TERESA ARREDONDO: I feel good because he doesn't get more girls. This is my compensation.

NOGUCHI: Monica Ramirez says, for women who work in isolation, rewarding whistleblowers and bystanders for reporting incidents is critical.

MONICA RAMIREZ: In the criminal justice realm, people are told that if they see something, they should say something.

NOGUCHI: Ramirez is president of farm workers group Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. She says she wants to see changes that benefit everyone.

RAMIREZ: We can't just say we're going to address this problem in one industry and then forget about all the others that have been impacted. Farmworker women have been left behind for many, many, many years.

NOGUCHI: The biggest gift of the Me Too movement, she says, is that it has united women across industries to demand change. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.


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