As someone who was a waitress for many years, I remember overly needy customers, bad tippers (of all races – not just Black people), and unwanted advances mostly by male customers. A new study from Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) reveals some compelling data about how the tipped sub-minimum wage of $2.13/hour leads to an increase in sexual harassment, and comes to a simple conclusion: get rid of it completely.
The study, titled “The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry,” was conducted by Forward Together in conjunction with ROC and with the cooperation of both Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising and the National Organization for Women, among others. It consisted of 688 employees of both genders across 39 states, with focus groups in four major cities (Houston, DC, New York, and New Orleans). It should be noted that the study has not been peer-reviewed.
Restaurant Opportunities Founder Saru Jayaraman refers to the restaurant industry as having “more sexual harassment than any industry in the US,” and corresponding data prove more sexual harassment claims through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry than from anywhere else. According to Eveline Shen of Forward Together, 80% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment from co-workers, managers, customers, or some combination thereof.
The most important of the study’s conclusions is that servers appear to report significantly more harassment (and a greater willingness to tolerate sexual harassment) in the 43 states using a tipped sub-minimum wage than in the seven states that don’t have one. While employees are (slightly) more likely to experience harassment from co-workers than from customers, in those instances, they also reported feeling more like they were able to tell the offending party to stop.
The study also goes into the way uniforms contribute to sexual harassment. Thirty percent of workers reported that male and female employees are required to wear different uniforms. The study’s findings seem to indicate that workers were twice as likely to report suffering sexual harassment if the uniforms were different than if they were the same. Women in states with a tipped minimum wage also reported that they were three times more likely to be told to “dress sexy” by management in order to get better tips.
According to Ensler, both the existence of the tipped sub-minimum wage and the prevalence of harassment and assault within the industry speak to “that we don’t take service seriously as a profession, that we don’t pay workers what they deserve…[it] is an indication of what we feel about the value of women’s work itself.” Jayaraman likewise points out that in other countries, people attend schools and universities to study being a server — and in many of those countries, high tips are considered demeaning because servers are professionals paid by their employers rather than surviving off the largesse of customers.
It seems that when people are dependent on tips as the major source of income to pay their bills then they are more willing to tolerate a bad situation because they feel like they don’t have any other options. This could be especially true if they are making very good tips where they work, even though they must endure sexually harassment in the process.
The obvious solution would be to raise these employees’ hourly rate, but that has the potential to be a long, difficult battle. Just look at all the hoopla happening over raising the national minimum wage rate. But it’s time that restaurant servers no longer earn $2.13 an hour, because being dependent on tips from a stranger can be a dangerous thing and the things you might tolerate in order make a living might actually be cutting into your quality of life.