Choosing Between Income and Safety: How Having an Oh Shit! Fund Helped Me Get Out of a Shitty Situation
Note: Because this story is about male-female gender dynamics, I will be gendering people.
This past Autumn, I was interviewed for a serving position. I liked the restaurant’s food, I thought I liked their ethos, and the price point was such that I expected tips would be good. I’m not new to the rodeo, so when the (male) GM said “do you have any questions for me?” I replied “Yes. As you know it’s coming increasingly to light that the restaurant industry is rife with sexual harassment. I would like to know the steps that you have personally taken to ensure the safety of the women working in your restaurant.” He stuttered and said “uh….we just hire good people…? It never happens here.” I translated in my head: “I do nothing, I pretend it’s not happening.” But I needed an income, so when it was offered to me, I took it.
In the new hire orientation with the HR head, we breezed past the harassment section (“Basically, if you sexually harass anyone, you will be fired.”) I put up my hand and said “Sorry, I feel like we glossed over that section and I think it’s really important. ” She blinked and said “No. We did it.”
I left that meeting with a sense of foreboding
I had previously had a bad experience in a restaurant with a similar policy. When I was assaulted at work, their lawyer perform gymnastics around its simplicity. The case ended with me fired and the man who assaulted me getting a 3-day suspension. As a result, I’m wary when an organization doesn’t place emphasis on a detailed anti-harassment policy.
On one of my first shifts, I observed a young female server assistant lose her shit on a cook because, she confided in me “He’s been at me non stop. Asking me out, he won’t leave me alone.”
It wasn’t only being a woman that made me feel uneasy there. As a queer, I get very uncomfortable with the old-school gender dynamics baked into fine dining service. Women get served first, a man tastes the wine, etcetera. At this new restaurant, our freaking computer system asked us to identify clients not only by their seat number, but also if they were a “lady.” Yikes.
The Final Straw
I then heard from an acquaintance that a manager there had just been fired for date-raping new hires (he had tried to do the same to her) and that the complainants had been required to sign a non-disclosure agreement just to report him to HR. I realized then that when the GM had said to me that harassment “never happen[ed] [t]here,” he had conveniently forgotten that incident, which had occurred only weeks earlier.
I gave my notice right away, with an email detailing suggestions that the organization could implement to bolster their sexual harassment policy and also how make the place more friendly for queers to work in.
Why I was able to leave
Because I had spent the past few years focusing on building a cushion of a few months’ living expenses (and because I was able to get EI from a previous gig), it was possible for me to get out of that restaurant, which would have been bad for my mental health and possibly dangerous.
Absolutely, my many areas of privilege make it easier for me to build a financial cushion—I am white, cis-presenting, straight-passing, born into an upper middle-class family, and my disability is invisible. These privileges have allowed me to get the experience that gives me a long resume. They make it easier for me to get hired, period. And when tips are not pooled, they likely allow me to earn more. There are lots of ways in which it is easier for me to make the money that allows me to set aside an Oh Shit! fund. I recognize that those reading it may not have these same privileges. Also, If you are experiencing poverty, this advice may not be usable in this moment.
But, if you are able to build a safety net, through setting aside a percentage of every cheque—I like this one, because no matter my income, I can choose a percentage that always feels doable—, decreasing expenses, or by taking on extra work, it can not only relieve stress, but also keep you safe, as it did for me in this case. It also allowed me to to choose to side with myself, in a dynamic in which women are so continuously silenced.
An Oh Shit! Fund Can’t Solve systemic problems, but it can get you out of a difficult situation
Right after I worked my last shift, I called my (male) partner and asserted, with exhaustion, how sick I am of having to choose between income and safety. Implicit in my complaint was the appeal “When will I find a job where I don’t have to make this choice?!?!”
To be honest, I don’t know whether a job exists where you don’t have to make this choice to some extent. When men have commented “Wow the entertainment/restaurant industry is full of harassment!” I respond “It’s every industry. These are just the ones being highlighted.” I can’t think of an industry in which I have worked where I didn’t know of harassment occurring to some extent. Even the organizations I have worked in without harassment have been rare. This is a human problem, not an industry problem.
Of course, having an Oh Shit! fund will not solve this. But, this Autumn, when I found myself in a situation in which the danger felt too great, my Oh Shit! fund let me walk away. And that was important.