Workplace Dangers: Being a Woman in the Service Industry

CW: This article mentions attempted assaults and harassment.

 

I’ve worked in the food service industry since I was 14. Beginning in a cute little concession stand at our local baseball field, I have come in contact with a lot of people from coworkers to customers. I also identify with she/her/hers pronouns and am female-presenting. My identity is almost like a curse in any industry, so I’m here to share my experiences over the past 5 years of working in food.

 

I’d first like to mention that my current coworkers all identify as females and we have shared countless stories, just like the ones I am about to talk about, of the treatment we receive from men while working. I cannot remember the last time I did not have to handle at least one uncomfortable and/or threatening situation involving a man’s comments or actions during my shift. The most upsetting part of this all is how women are taught to respond to harassment. We must remain calm and pleasant, we cannot change the tone of our voice, we smile and nod and just hope for the end of the conversation. We lock the windows, we carry the same pepper spray, we send each other links to discrete GPS tracking devices, we always park as close to the store’s exit as possible. 

 

With this in mind, I’d like to share some of the experiences I have had to bring awareness to the situation.

 

The Creepy Old Man Who Was Hitting on a 15-Year-Old

 

After my first year in the concession stand, our town built a brand new athletic complex. So, the baseball field workers would head over to the athletic complex sometimes to sell concessions for the games there. During the grand opening, they decided to hold an outdoor concert. I was working by myself since it was pretty early into the night, so not too busy. I was reorganizing the popsicles when an old man, somewhere in his 60s, came up to buy some drinks and candy. I got him everything he wanted and even though he was all checked out, he would not leave. Breaking the weird silence between us, he began to ask me questions like what my name was, if I was a student, how long I had worked there. I was taught to be very cautious about giving out personal information, so I vaguely answered the questions. They started getting weirder and weirder like if I had ever had a boyfriend, where I lived, when my birthday was. He was no longer accepting my vague answers and started moving closer and closer. I was looking around at all the other families and people nearby, and they all saw what was going on, but no one stepped in. I was in the middle of a packed field but no one helped me. He eventually left because the music started, and I was left in my stand, worrying that he was going to come back. I was 15.

 

A Constantly Uncomfortable Situation

 

After I worked at the concession stands for 3 years, I got a job at a restaurant and bar. My neighbor was the Bar Manager, so she put in a good word for me. I was hired on the spot for a kitchen position. So for about 6 months, I worked in the kitchen making salads. All my coworkers were men in their late 20s early 30s, and luckily they kind of treated me like their little sister. This didn’t stop them from being very misogynistic 95% of the time. I eventually moved to hosting in the same restaurant and was finally working with other girls. However, this now meant I had to interact with far more people, and at this restaurant, many of the customers were racist and homophobic. Right before the pandemic hit, they hired a new manager. Our location was the training store for new managers, so we had seen a bunch of different people go in and out of the store. But this time, the new hire stuck around a lot longer. His name was Tom. He was in his late 50s and had a daughter in college. He always acted weird around the hosts. Tom would make his presence known by grabbing us around our waists and would hang around the stand, just staring at us. One of the male hosts told us that Tom had been a manager at a nearby Old Chicago’s where his mom was the general manager. Apparently, Tom was fired after working there for 15 years because all of the hosts said he sexually assaulted them. That’s when we all pieced it together. So on one hand we had to deal with drunk, racist men who would definitely commit a hate crime and Tom the Predator. Luckily, I was laid off due to COVID-19. I was 17.

 

The Classic: “Laugh at the Girl Whose Life Was in Danger”

 

This one was literally a week ago (from the time I’m writing this). Like April 1st. My current job is at a drive-through-only coffee shop. I absolutely love this job and the people I work with. This was the first time I felt so close and cared for by my coworkers. However, there are some major flaws in the company especially when it comes to the store owners. I’m a closer, so our pre-close person usually leaves 2 hours before we actually close, leaving me alone to clean up the store and prep it for the next day’s shift. That night, I was closing like normal, everything was actually going really well compared to the week before. Now that the sun is staying up longer, we’re getting a lot busier, and my last few closes had made me cry because they were so busy and horrible. I was so excited to be able to leave on time and go home and relax, but men said “no.” I was counting the drawer after the store officially closed, taking the deposits, and finishing up doing the dishes. I start heading back to the counter that holds all of our tip jars, grabbing the trash, doing my last few things before I would leave. I see something in the corner of my eye and I turn to look. There was a man at our biggest window staring at me. He was watching me intently and did not break eye contact. I tried to ignore it. Where the store is located there’s a lot of drug activity and sketchy motels, so it wasn’t the first time I’d had someone lingering around. The thing was, this guy was like 20 and he would not move. He eventually started looking up at the sky and stayed in that position for 5 minutes, still standing at the window. Our store is very small, it’s a rectangle so people can see the whole store from the front window. I started getting more and more concerned because the man was now moving to the other windows, going to our backdoor (the only exit), and scoping out the parking lot. I hid behind this little part of the wall that sticks out because of the bathroom and called my mom. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what the man’s deal was. I kept watching him in our store cameras while giving my mom the rundown. She gave me the non-emergency phone number for the police because I refused to call 911. I called them, and as I explained the situation to the responder, I broke down crying. 

I have a panic disorder, so this was the worst possible situation I could be in. She told me they would send an officer to the store to check it out. While I waited for the officer to come, I stayed hidden and told my General Manager that I had just called the police. As the police car entered our parking lot, I saw that the guy watching me had put on a bandana, covering his face up to his eyes, and was sitting at my car. Like, sitting in front of my car, waiting. The cop pulled up, saw him there, and started talking to him. Another officer showed up and I moved out from hiding so I could get a better look at the cameras. I was on the phone with my GM as I saw the cops walk with the guy up to our walk-up customer window. I panicked because I did not know what was going on. The next thing I know, the cops are having the man show them every spot he was watching me from….while I was still in the building. I hid again (obviously) and watched them disappear out of my line of sight. The police eventually came up to the backdoor and mockingly asked if I was the one who called them. I said I was, and they told me that they “moved the guy along” so I should be fine now. They then asked me if I wanted them to wait for me to leave the store before they left, which you know, you would think they would be able to piece together that maybe they should stay. As I’m taking out the trash and heading to my car, the officers are sitting at one of the cars, loudly making jokes about me and the whole situation. I get in my car and leave.

 

On the way home, I’m on the phone with my mom and she’s tracking my location just in case. The second I step into my doorway, I get a call from the store owners. They start off nice and ask me if I’m okay and if I was home. Then they take a hard left and start questioning my choices. They have me explain what happened, and I guess they weren’t too impressed until I mentioned the whole ‘hiding in front of my car in a mask’ thing. Then they finally say that it was a scary situation as if getting stalked and trapped in the store didn’t hit the spot for them. I was then lectured about calling the cops and not using our panic button (which they took down a few days before my shift because they claimed we didn’t need it). They then told me that they would have to “review the footage” to make sure I was really in danger. I make $12.50 an hour and our store owners have 5 luxury cars. Do you see the disconnect here? I was 19.

 

There we have it. Three different workplaces over the span of 5 years and nothing much has changed. I could talk for years about the injustices women face every single day, but I think I would like to focus on victim-blaming. Why am I the one scolded and punished as the male that committed the crime faced no consequences? Why am I told to carry more self-defense items like tasers and knives while the man who almost kidnapped me walked away down the street? Why can’t I just walk to my car in a well-lit parking lot without having to check under my car for anyone hiding under it waiting to attack me?

 

This is not a line of normal thinking. All of these situations are not normal. There’s a difference between common and normal. I should not be forced to rationalize these horrible situations while the men who put me in that position get to walk away. No one should have their traumas and experiences invalidated because “everyone else goes through it, too.”I can only hope and advocate for a time in which myself and others can feel safe existing as ourselves.