News Law and Policy

The Tipped Minimum Wage Is Fueling Sexual Harassment in Restaurants

Bryce Covert

“When you reduce the power imbalance by giving women … the full minimum wage … a woman has greater power, greater agency, and doesn’t have to put up with everything.”

Jenna Watanabe earned $2.13 an hour when she worked as a restaurant server in Utah. That’s perfectly legal because she made tips—and federal law says tipped workers can be paid a lower wage so long as their tips add up to the minimum wage for everyone else, or $7.25 an hour.

But that meant Watanabe relied heavily on those tips to make a living. “My income was totally reliant on the approval of strangers,” she said Tuesday during a call with the media. That left her financial prospects in chaos. “I had a lot of fluctuations in my income. It was really challenging for me to pay rent and school tuition.”

The industry, however, has a ready solution for sexual harassment at hand. “One simple way to reduce instances of sexual violence and harassment in the workplace would be to implement [one fair wage, or abolish the tipped minimum wage] for all workers,” says a new report from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, which hosted the media call. “While this would not eliminate sexual harassment, it would enable women to stand up to abuse in the workplace and break through the normalization of sexual harassment in the industry.”

Some states are considering doing just that. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced in his 2018 State of the State address that he would hold hearings to examine ditching the state’s tipped minimum wage of $2.90 an hour. Advocates are collecting signatures in Michigan to put a measure on November’s ballot raising the minimum wage to $12 for all workers, and a similar measure is being pushed in Washington, D.C.

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“I was constantly dealing with the sexual harassment that permeates the industry, not just from guests but from co-workers and managers,” Watanabe said. Once, when she was serving a table, “all of a sudden I felt a slap on my butt,” she said. She turned around to see a man she’d never seen before. “It threw me off. I didn’t know how to respond,” she recalled. “Instead of reacting, because I was afraid of losing my tips or losing my job, I didn’t do anything.”

Things changed when Watanabe moved to California four years ago. California has done away with a lower wage for tipped workers, instead mandating that everyone be paid the same amount. She started out at $10.74 an hour and will be making $15 an hour come July. Even though she lives in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the United States, she feels more financially stable than she did in Utah—especially since her tips didn’t decrease even with the higher wage.

“I felt like I got more respect from the employers,” Watanabe said. “Plus I didn’t have to put up with anything and everything under the sun because I was dependent on tips.”

Since 1996, federal law has allowed the six million people in the United States who work for tips to be paid $2.13. But seven states—Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington—have established minimum wage laws that treat all workers the same, mandating that everyone make at least the same amount, tipped or not.

This change has led to much more financial security for the people who live and work in those states. Tipped workers’ median wage is $11.44 in these states, a good deal higher than the median wage of $9.57 in all the others where they can legally be paid less, according to the ROC report. Even those earning in the bottom 10 percent in states without a tipped minimum wage make more than the median elsewhere: $9.66 an hour. It may not be surprising, then, that poverty rates are significantly lower in these states.

The impact isn’t just financial. ROC found that women who work for tips in states that have abolished the tipped minimum wage report experiencing sexual harassment at half the rate of those in the rest of the states. On the other hand, women in states that allow lower pay for tipped workers are three times more likely to say management told them to wear “sexier” or more revealing clothing to work, and women who are made to wear more suggestive clothing are more likely to experience sexual harassment.

Women who rely almost entirely on tips to earn their living “must tolerate this behavior in order to receive money in tips,” said Saru Jayaraman, ROC president, on the media call. Servers often feel the need to put up with or even invite comments and advances in order to coax their customers into leaving them a higher tip. “That forced objectification makes a woman then vulnerable to objectification by coworkers and managers.”

But in states where women are guaranteed the same wage as everyone else, “a woman doesn’t have to put up with everything and anything from a customer, because she gets a full wage from her boss,” Jayaraman said. “She can walk home with an actual wage even if she doesn’t tolerate the guy who wants to touch her or grab her or speak to her inappropriately.”

“As someone who’s worked for tips,” actress and activist Michelle Williams said on the call, “I stand today with the restaurant workers for one fair wage to say that we’re done accepting the broken status quo.”

Sexual harassment is rampant in restaurants, where a majority of tipped employees work: Although just 7 percent of the workforce is employed at a restaurant, the food and hospitality industry makes up 14 percent of harassment complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. ROC’s research has backed this up. When ROC surveyed 688 current and former restaurant employees in 2014, about 80 percent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment from customers and co-workers. Two-thirds reported experiencing sexual harassment from management.

Taria Vines is one of them. She’s worked in New York City’s restaurant industry for a decade. “I know what it is to live on $2.13 an hour,” she said on the call, choking back tears. “Relying on tips for us makes a difference, because we shouldn’t have to sell our bodies .… Especially when you’re going to school, you’re raising young children, and work. You have enough on your plate as it is.”

Vines has had to deal with much more than trying to do her job. She’s experienced harassment from customers, managers, kitchen staff, and fellow servers. Once, before she could take their order, a couple asked her to show them her tongue ring and lift her skirt to expose a thigh tattoo. “They said they’d leave me an even bigger tip if I did all of this,” she said.

“It is the most degrading thing in the world,” she said. “It should never happen.”

Vines worried about what would happen if she spoke up. “Your biggest fear is losing your job, so a lot of women deal with the sexual harassment just so they can keep their jobs and move on,” she said. “I spent five years on my job before I got the nerve to speak up about the disrespect, the harassment from customers and managers alike.” Today she works for herself, running her own catering business.

When Nadine Morsch reported to her manager a male customer who touched her and hugged her to supposedly show his gratitude, calling her “sugar” and “sweetheart,” “I was told the customer was a friend of the owner, and if I valued my position I’d keep my discomfort to myself,” she said. So far, she said, no manager has taken action when she’s reported experiencing sexual harassment.

What Vines and Morsch went through is all too common. The ROC survey found that rather than feeling comfortable speaking out, more than a third of tipped female workers felt they had to quit to escape harassment.

“Sexual harassment is fundamentally about power on the job,” Jayaraman said. “Women don’t have power as tipped workers, they don’t have power vis-à-vis customers and co-workers and managers when their income is so volatile … because their base pay is so low and they rely completely on tips.”

But, she added, “When you reduce the power imbalance by giving women … the full minimum wage … a woman has greater power, greater agency, and doesn’t have to put up with everything.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to include the correct spelling of Jenna Watanabe’s name, and her correct starting rate. We regret the errors. 

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