June Barrett left Jamaica and migrated to the United States, looking for safety. It was 2001, and her increasingly open identity as a queer woman was making life untenable back home. When it came up at work and she became a target for harassment, she decided it was time to go. Barrett followed her twin sister to Miami.
She got off a bus in Florida and went directly to her first job interview. She started working right away, in the home of an aging woman, caring for her as an off-the-books employee of the family. Barrett’s been a care worker ever since, and she’s proud of the career. It feels like she’s paying something forward. “When I give care, I think about me. I think about me being 54 years old and going down,” Barrett says, by way of explaining how she deals with difficult clients. “I think about: What if something should happen and someone should come in and give care to me?”
So it’s rewarding labor—but it has rarely provided Barrett the safety she sought in the United States. Rather, it has placed her in one of the lowest-paid, most predatory parts of our economy. Barrett has been routinely verbally abused, had her wages stolen, worked around the clock for days at a time without a break. And she has endured the sexual assault that is endemic to low-wage service work—jobs that easily form one of the largest sectors of the American workforce and that are, not coincidentally, overwhelmingly staffed by women.
“At one point, there was no work,” Barrett recalls as she begins telling me a story familiar to millions of women who have done jobs like hers. She had long avoided turning to agencies, because they take all the money and provide no support. But she was desperate. “They said, ‘OK, we have work’…. So I went to that work. And the very first night, the gentleman started touching me inappropriately, invited me to bed.” Barrett says she fought him off. “I’m strong. So thank God he didn’t rape me or whatever. But the touching and the inappropriate stuff—[it was] just vile.”
Barrett needed the assignment, so she kept quiet. “I know agencies: You can’t whine. You might be taken off that case, and they’ll throw you aside. Because they are getting so much money, they don’t want to upset their clients.”
We have belatedly begun a national conversation about sexual assault in the workplace. Women have outed powerful men as not merely boors but calculating predators. We’ve acknowledged this as a bipartisan problem, one that stretches from the White House to Hollywood. And legions of women have bravely spoken up to reveal just how unexceptional Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein are in all of our communities. Our collective dirty secret is being aired: On the left and right alike, we have allowed boys to be boys for far too long.
And so maybe we are headed for a reckoning. It should be clear by now that sexual harassment isn’t about sex; it’s about power. But it’s also about more than one individual attacking another. So many women have experienced so much harassment on the job because it’s one of the many tools used to keep men in charge of economic life. It is literally written into the code of our economy.
There are few places where that code is more visible—and more confining—than in the service sector. June Barrett was left vulnerable to her client’s groping and grabbing by design.
When the federal government began creating job protections during the New Deal era, Congress explicitly excluded jobs associated with women and black people: domestic and farm work. Generations later, as Barrett walked to her job in a strange man’s home, she and her peers still had few rights. She was exempted from the minimum wage, overtime pay, and workplace-safety rules. Everything about the economic arrangement suggested to the man who employed her that she was his property, to do with as he pleased.
This is true throughout the service sector. Consider the restaurant industry, where the economics of harassment are crystal clear. Fifty-two percent of female restaurant workers report weekly sexual harassment on the job, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. The ROC United survey found that restaurant workers who depend on tips and live in states that exempt tipped workers from standard minimum-wage rules are far more likely to report sexual harassment. Women workers in those states are also three times as likely to report being asked by management to make their outfits sexier.
Food servers and care workers are among the largest and fastest-growing segments of our workforce. There are as many people in food service alone (roughly 12 million) as there are in all forms of manufacturing. Women are greatly overrepresented in these jobs, and it isn’t just happenstance that they are among the lowest-paid and least respected parts of our workforce.
Women in the service sector have responded to their plight by leading the battle to remake the 21st-century labor economy. June Barrett didn’t just endure the harassment she faced at work; she joined the Miami Workers Center and became a leader in an exploding movement for domestic workers’ rights. She and her co-workers have won the enactment of a bill guaranteeing those rights in eight states and counting. Likewise, the Fight for $15 was sparked and has been fueled by women who walked out of fast-food jobs. Teachers’ unions—led and powered by women—have held the line against the attack on public workers in states around the country.
So the resistance didn’t begin with Trump’s presidency. But hopefully, the reckoning we must have with our history of devaluing women and their work will be hastened by it.