Illinois Service Workers Face Increased Harassment, Abuse and Subminimum Wages During the Pandemic.

Illinois Service Workers are struggling with harassment, abuse, and subminimum wages. One Fair Wage published a report outlining abuse, harassment, and public health concerns facing Illinois service workers. According to the non-profit group representing subminimum wage workers,

  • 89% know someone with COVID
  • 53% report employees at their restaurant have contracted COVID
  • 83% of employees are within 6 feet of an unmasked person at least once during their shift.
  • 53% of employees interact with 10 or more unmasked people during a shift

Illinois Service Workers Chicago DefenderINCREASED RISK OF CONTRACTING COVID-19

Illinois Service workers provide essential services in a high-risk environment. The risks of contracting COVID are higher for Illinois Service Workers. One in two workers reported knowing at least one of their co-workers with COVID. That is 10% more than the national average. Illinois Service Workers complain that their employers do not provide adequate PPE equipment. 38% report that their employers have not conducted mandatory training on safety protocols. 83% report being within six feet of at least one person without a mask during their shifts. 67% complain of employers not following all safety protocols. This leaves many more exposed to contracting coronavirus.


Faced with the task of policing patrons, Illinois restaurant workers endure daily harassment. Restaurant workers must remind customers to follow protocols such as wearing a mask. The current federal subminimum wage is $2.13/hour. Workers are reluctant to enforce protocols out of fear of harassment and loss of tip income. 68% of workers report receiving a lesser tip after enforcing COVID-19 safety measures. 77% report experiencing hostile behavior from customers when implementing these measures.

There is also a dramatic increase in sexual harassment among Illinois restaurant workers. The service industry is mostly female and disproportionately women of color. Female service workers report customers who demand to see their faces before tipping. There are also increased unwanted sexual comments from male patrons.

“Men ask me to take my mask off all the time. They try to touch me inappropriately and often tell me distance doesn’t matter”.

When asked to wear a mask, one male customer took the mask from inside his pants near his genitals and waved them in front of a female worker’s face.

“Take your mask off, so I know how much to tip you.”

More than 40% of workers say there is an increase in the frequency of unwanted sexual comments by customers. Illinois Service workers rely on tips from customers to make up their base wages. This behavior creates an unsafe working environment for many Illinois service workers. The power dynamic between female workers and male patrons who refuse to wear masks or social distance makes workers more vulnerable to abuse and health risks.


With most restaurants open for outdoor dining, carryout, or delivery, some workers returned to work. However, many were left financially unstable because they were out of work for a significant amount of time. 60% of tipped workers say they could not qualify for unemployment compensation. Tips also drastically decreased due to less indoor dining. Workers are often forced to deal with harassment and abuse out of fear of losing much-needed tips to live.

Saru Jayraman, Executive Director of One Fair Wage, says we are in a crisis. “Service workers are unable to protect themselves or enforce the safety protocols needed to protect the public. Women are literally being asked to expose themselves to illness and death for the pleasure of male customers-and all for a subminimum wage.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 10 million service workers have lost their jobs. Those who have remained employed continue to struggle with low wages, decreased tips, and increased risks of Covid-19. There is an increased momentum to require restaurants to pay a full minimum wage plus tips. Seven states currently pay service workers a minimum wage plus tips. One Fair Wage hopes Illinois will follow suit and enact One Fair Wage as permanent law.

“All of these experiences of the intersection of public health hazards with sexual harassment and abuse point to a clear minimal solution: requiring all restaurants to pay a fair wage. Paying workers a full minimum wage with tips would reduce their dependence on tips and thus their vulnerability to harassment”-Saru Jayraman.


Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSandersOfficial.

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