We are living through a crush of headlines that reveal patterns of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by men against women in the workplace or other professional settings.

The outcry is long overdue, and has prompted a heightened sense of awareness with a particular focus on structures that enable and perpetuate such conduct.

These developments also make it imperative for the community of business to give serious consideration to a largely overlooked matter that’s poised to hit the most likely victims of sexual harassment or assault on the job: restaurant workers.

That conclusion is drawn from 20 years’ worth of recently compiled data from the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The data echoes a 2014 study by the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, which indicated that 37 percent of sexual harassment claims filed with the EEOC came from women in the restaurant industry – a group that makes up just 7 percent of the U.S. workforce.

Now consider a new rule proposed by the Department of Labor on tipped wages. It would have an outsized effect on restaurant workers – a key part of the economy here in Los Angeles, where they total 356,000, or nearly 7% of the civilian labor force countywide.

The rule, on its surface, addresses what the federal agency says are concerns “about the scope of its current tip regulations as applied to employers.” Employers would be allowed to collect tips – pool them – and redistribute the cash.

Tips can be used to subsidize federal minimum wage requirement. That means businesses could use tip pooling to cut their labor costs by giving workers who might not normally be tipped – think dishwashers or line cooks – a cut of the tip pool.

The proposed rule does not explicitly require employers to redistribute tips at all, so long as federal and state wage laws are met.

A possible bottom-line boon for businesses that employ tipped workers?

Perhaps.

A tone-deaf move that holds the potential to reinforce power dynamics that contribute to hostile workplace environments for women?

We think so.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates women food service workers would lose some $4.6 billion in tipped wages if the new rule is adopted – 80 percent of the $5.8 billion overall pot at stake.

The economic shift would make women – who account for 70 percent of frontline restaurant industry workers but only 45 percent of managers – increasingly reliant on male superiors for tips that are vital to their livelihood.

The federal government’s own statistics indicate this is a system where abuse thrives.

Protecting workers is a core mission of the Department of Labor, which has broad authority to promulgate rules to combat sexual harassment in any industry.

The agency now appears, consciously or not, intent on abandoning some of our most vulnerable workers.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.