To allow tips or not has been the question for some time now as more and more independent restaurants hit hard by the pandemic are adding a set service charge to their bills to ease away from the tipped economy.

A recent press call on the day before Equal Pay Day back in late March, One Fair Wage presented a number of scenarios on why now is the time to eliminate a server’s need to rely on tipping for a living wage and why all of a restaurant’s workers should be paid a living wage. The timing coincides with what’s in the news right now: the Me Too and the Black Lives Matter movements.

For historical context, Saru Jayaraman, who heads up the national organization One Fair Wage, said that in 1850 waiters in NYC went on strike for better wages and conditions and in response the restaurant owners replaced the men with women, who were willing to work for less. In addition, owners sought to hire Black people with the plan to have them rely on tips and no salary for their livelihood. From that background, she told the group, servers in some states still rely on tips to make enough salary to live on.

One Fair Wage is asking for the subminimum wage for tipped workers be raised to the full minimum wage.

For women, the need to rely on tips for a living wage has often translated into sexual harassment, from both customers and management. Today 70 percent of tipped employees are women, and the pandemic has adversely affected tips, the speakers reported. For instance, servers whose management requires them to be the enforcers of the mask mandate often see lower tips. And women have even been asked by male customers to pull down their masks so that can assess their looks and therefore know how much to tip.

Professor Catherine MacKinnon said that having to rely on tips explains a lot about sexual harassment. States with a “real minimum wage,” she said have less sexual harassment, and when women reported this harassment, it was worse if they were tipped workers. Around 76 percent of tipped workers were likely to have been sexually harassed, compared to 52 percent of their non-tipped counterparts, according to the report, The Tipping Point: How Subminimum Wage Keeps Incomes Low and Harassment High.  

Another finding was: “Virtually all [98 percent] of the harassed women workers reported experiencing at least one incident of retaliation, [and] when all forms of retaliation were taken into account, tipped workers experienced significantly and substantially more retaliation than their non-tipped counterparts.”

Overall, 71 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at least once during their time in the restaurant industry, which is higher than any other industry.

A young server, Haley Holland-Carrera, talked about her experiences as a tipped employee. The discomfort on the job isn’t always the big things, she said, but the small indignities, such as lewd winks and being asked for her phone number. “If we don’t smile and nod and laugh it off, we’re not going to get a tip,” she said. “We are gambling with our lives. It’s the nature of the job.”

Senator Bernie Sanders weighed in as well. “I don’t think raising the minimum wage will solve all our problems, but when we raise wages for millions of people, they have money in their pockets and they spend,” he said. “In the richest country in the world, we shouldn’t have people working for starvation wages.”

The studies also have shown that Black workers received lower tips during the pandemic than white servers.

The national minimum wage for tipped employees hasn’t been raised for 30 years, the Senator who has championed a bill to correct this, said.

The Fair Labor Standards Act mandates that employees who earn $30 or more a month in tips be paid at least $2.13 per hour in wages. In Minnesota the minimum wage is $10.08 [$8.21 for small employers with less than $500K in annual sales]. One of the points the group stressed is why are restaurant servers allowed to be paid less per hour because they receive tips, but not other tipped employees, such as those in the beauty and wellness fields and limo drivers?

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