By: McKenzie Reimer
Andrea Dahl, a Walmart employee for over two years, stands by herself folding clothing in the women’s department when a group of men pass by her. They look over at her once. She thinks nothing of it and continues to do her job, but when they pass by a second time she begins to take notice. They continue to walk by her three different times, never saying a word, but always make sure she sees them staring at her.
Dahl’s story is but one of the many similar experiences told by the long line of women that work in retail or the food service industry.
Women put on a brave face everyday as they venture to their jobs in a world of rude customers and careless management, while having to worry about their safety as they try to make a living.
According to the article “Workers in Food Service, Retail at Higher Risk of Sexual Harassment, Research Says,” by the Chicago Tribune and research done by Jocelyn Frye, workers in food service and retail file more than three times as many sexual harassment claims as employees in the higher-paying fields, like finance and insurance in the year of 2017. It was reported that nearly three quarters of those filing sexual harassment complaints reported retaliation, suggesting victims are at high risk of encountering further professional punishment if they come forward.
When asked why Dahl has never gone to authorities with her complaints, she says “It shouldn’t be a common thing. But it is a common thing. Women just accept it. And they don’t do anything about it, because it’s normal, it’s common. You expect it, so when it happens, you’re just kinda like, oh well.”
Meghan Collett, a former Taco Time employee of two years, runs out to her car in the employee parking lot which is barely a few feet from the building. She sits in her car and waits for all of the other employees to leave before she ventures away herself because she doesn’t feel safe.
“It put a lot of stress on me to be in that environment because I felt that I was always trying to keep myself safe. It was more like a survival job sometimes because I did not feel safe.”
Collett worked at Taco Time for over 2 years. During her time there, she cashiered, prepared food, delivered it and even managed money. She was often asked to perform duties outside of her pay grade and worker contract. Over the course of her time there, Collett only made $7.25 as a manager.
“If he [her manager] thought you’d deserve it, he’d give you a larger bonus. If he thought you didn’t deserve it, he would deduct it from you.”
Along with doing above and beyond what she was hired to do, Collett had to face the reality of working with constant harassment from both her coworkers and managers. One coworker in particular was a registered sex offender.
“He kept asking us to go out to drink with him, asking for alone time with us, and saying very inappropriate things towards us. And he finally got fired and banned from the store, but it took a lot for him to get fired.”
Men were allowed to wear whatever they wanted, but women were not allowed to wear certain styles of black pants, as it was seen as indecent. Her employer even went as far as to say over the intercom, according to Meghan, ‘If you wanted to wear something like that, then go work at the strip club down the street.’
Another Walmart employee, Jocasta Osborn, began her career in retail five years ago when she needed a job while attending Iowa State University. Since day one of working in the retail industry, Osborn has had to deal with many incidents of harassment. In fact, as a joke in her department, she is known as the “one who gets the weird customers.”
“I do sometimes feel like I am treated differently by the customers than the men in the store. Maybe not worse than them, but to tell the truth I learned to not care what customers think,” she explains.
This same sentiment was echoed by Dahl. “When customers get upset at me, I don’t take it personally. At first I’ll be mad about it, but then I’ll laugh at them because it’s funny.”
According to reports done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up the majority of the food and retail service labor force, especially the lower paying positions. This may be attributed to why women like Jocasta and Andrea are so desensitized to harassment in their line of work. In fact, retail makes up at least 13.4 percent of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sexual harassment claims.
According to an article on Racked.com, a retail website owned by Vox Media, “Being a woman, or a woman of color makes workers more vulnerable to sexual harassment, because sexual harassers tend to be ‘looking for someone who is not going to report or if they do report, are not going to be believed or taken seriously,’” says Josie Torielli, the assistant director of intervention programs at the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.
Dahl further explains this point,“When you identify as a woman, you’re automatically… I don’t want to say a target, but people think they can get away with more stuff. It’s especially easier for the men to harass the women. Because it’s a dominance thing.”
Isabel Cournoyer, a current employee of ISU Dining and Freddy’s, as well as a former guest service representative at the Gateway Hotel, has worked in various service industry jobs within the past seven years.
“In the hotel industry, and I guess in the food industry too, you learn that the guest might always be right, but they are also not always the nicest. I’ve had people throw drinks at me, verbally abuse me, throw their credit cards in my face, make sexual remarks, the list goes on. You learn to accept some of the smaller things, like the credit card throwing, but other times you also learn how to stand up for yourself. I’ve denied people check in and cancelled their rooms because of things they would say, but it’d have to be something like racial slurs or verbal threats, serious stuff you know. You begin understanding the difference between someone who’s frustrated or had a rough day and people who are downright awful.”
With evidence backing the claim that women are more vulnerable than men in retail and service positions, it would seem that there is a real need for change in how harassment is handled. Both Osborn and Dahl offer up the wise advice of keeping an eye out for people who like to get a little too close or ask personal questions and learn to stay calm when confronted by these kind of people.
Being aware of the possibility of harassment may not be enough. Collett’s safety was put into question while she worked at Taco Time. “They hired somebody that was a sexual child predator. I was still a child and he was making advances on me, which we all had said was a problem. And it wasn’t fixed until my male co-worker filed one complaint, whereas I had filed several complaints against him.”
Cournoyer feels like her hard work is often overlooked because she is a woman, “I wouldn’t say I’m treated worse, but I feel like I get pushed over more than male employees. I have gotten in trouble for doing jobs that we have to do, simply because I didn’t tell anyone I was going to do them. If I mess up an order, I’ve gotten talked to about it, whereas others have just gotten a, ‘we all make mistakes.’”
Dahl was quick to point out that she would feel safer if companies like Walmart created training videos to teach not only her, but also the male employees how to keep an eye out and intervene if needed.
“Even if the men are not the ones being harassed, maybe they’ll understand what other people go through, and can identify when it is happening, so they can help out or tell management.”