How Tipping Helped Make Sexual Harassment the Norm for Female Servers

Jenny Brown

When you're dependent on tips for your living, you're forced to grin and bear all kinds of harassing questions, gestures, groping and even stalking in order to make ends meet.

First pub­lished at Labor Notes.

While I was writ­ing about sex­u­al harass­ment of women work­ers at Ford, restau­rant work­ers remind­ed me that 37 per­cent of Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tu­ni­ty Com­mis­sion claims of sex­u­al harass­ment come from their indus­try. These dis­mal stats are con­nect­ed to how many restau­rant work­ers get paid: tips.

U.S. unions opposed tip­ping when it first became a thing in the ear­ly 1900s, import­ed by hoity-toity Amer­i­cans imi­tat­ing the Euro­pean rich. Most Amer­i­cans denounced the dis­pens­ing of a few coins to work­ers as anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic and a reminder of the kind of mas­ter-ser­vant folderol we had reject­ed with King George.

But now the tables are turned, and tip­ping is much more preva­lent in the U.S. than it is in Europe. In some coun­tries, like Aus­tralia, it’s regard­ed as real­ly bad man­ners. Who do you think you are, the Queen?” they ask.

Free Mon­ey

What hap­pened? While unions and oth­ers tried to out­law tip­ping in the ear­ly days, restau­rant employ­ers saw it as free mon­ey. Work­ers get paid extra by the cus­tomers, so we can pay them less — what’s not to like?” they reasoned.

The mess was cod­i­fied in 1966 when restau­rant and oth­er tipped work­ers final­ly got includ­ed in the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act. But instead of one fair wage, the law cre­at­ed a sec­ond tier: tipped work­ers who could be paid a sub­min­i­mum wage.

The restau­rant lob­by then leaned on politi­cians to hold the fed­er­al tipped min­i­mum wage at $2.13 an hour (the 1991 rate) while the min­i­mum wage rose. Tipped wages had been 50 per­cent of the fed­er­al min­i­mum; now they’re just 29 per­cent. (The boss is sup­posed to top it up if $2.13 plus tips doesn’t reach the hourly min­i­mum, but restau­rant work­ers say that doesn’t hap­pen much.)

As a result, writes the Restau­rant Oppor­tu­ni­ties Cen­ters Unit­ed in a recent report, work­ers rely on tips for most of their pay. This means a major­i­ty-female work­force must please and cur­ry favor with cus­tomers to earn a liv­ing,” ROC notes. Men take advan­tage with harass­ing ques­tions, ges­tures, grop­ing, even stalking.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it’s just become the soci­etal norm, and we have all accept­ed it and we all hate it,” a woman bar­tender told ROC.

While co-work­er harass­ment is also preva­lent in restau­rants, tip­ping rais­es the stakes. With co-work­ers, I have more free­dom to be like, okay, stop it,’” said one ROC inter­vie­wee. But when a guest does it, then I feel a lot more pow­er­less. That’s when I’m like, man, that’s where my money’s com­ing from…”

Man­agers tend to side with the cus­tomers when work­ers com­plain. I said to myself, I can’t be putting up with this, let me talk to my boss about it,” said anoth­er serv­er harassed on the job. I was kind of sur­prised by what my boss said… Well, those peo­ple pay a lot of mon­ey for our ser­vices and, I mean, would it hurt to smile a lit­tle bit, be a lit­tle bit more friend­ly to them?’ And I was blown away.”

Makes a Difference

Due to orga­niz­ing by tipped work­ers, sev­er­al states have raised their tipped min­i­mums above the fed­er­al $2.13. Tipped work­ers get the full min­i­mum wage in Cal­i­for­nia, Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, Neva­da, Min­neso­ta, and Alaska.

That changes things. ROC found that in those states, sex­u­al harass­ment by cus­tomers, co-work­ers, and man­agers was less prevalent.

It’s obvi­ous that if you’re less depen­dent on tips, you’ll put up with less crap from cus­tomers. But it’s inter­est­ing that boss­es treat­ed them bet­ter, too — prob­a­bly because high­er wages made them less vulnerable.

Maybe one day we can make tip­ping his­to­ry. Mean­while, we can get rid of its more per­ni­cious effects by mak­ing sure any time the min­i­mum wage is dis­cussed, tipped work­ers get includ­ed — no two-tier wage sys­tem, and no exceptions.

Jen­ny Brown is co-edi­tor of Labor Notes.
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