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Tipping Your Waitress is the Most Practical Way of Standing with Women in the Workplace

As the proliferation of the #MeToo movement late last year awakened men many to the realities of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, a lot self-identifying “good guys” were either quick to reject being associated with such behavior or clueless about how they could help solve such a massive problem.

To the latter excuse, Saru Jayaraman, president of The Restaurant Opportunities Center United and Action and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, offers a suggestion no man can deny (or ignore) — it’s that fucking easy: Act in solidarity with the women who serve you in restaurants. Or in other words, parlay any guilt about how to be a feminist at work into tipping your waitresses well and supporting civic measures that support the creation of one fair wage, as opposed two different minimum wages for tipped and non-tipped workers.

Jayaraman, who accompanied Amy Poehler to the Golden Globes last month, believes this is as good (and practical) a place to start as any because half of all American women will work in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives and women who work for tips are more vulnerable to sexual harassment. Recently, I spoke to Jayaraman about this and much more — including the way tipping is a byproduct of the end of slavery, the power of the National Restaurant Association (which she considers the other NRA) and how #MeToo convinced New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to stand behind his state’s restaurant workers.

I’m guessing some of the reaction to your proposal is a eye-roll-y — like, “Restaurants, really?” But why do you think that’s a good place to start?
The restaurant industry is about to hit the 13 million worker mark. We’re the second largest sector of the U.S. economy, representing one in 11 American workers right now, and it’s currently growing faster than any other private sector. And yet, it continues to be the lowest paying employer in the U.S. That’s largely due to the influence of money on the trade lobby, The National Restaurant Association, which we call the other NRA. Since the emancipation of slaves, the National Restaurant Association has been lobbying to keep wages for tipped workers as low as possible.

As a Californian, I didn’t realize there’s still a different minimum wage for tipped workers in most states.
The original tipped workers were slaves right after emancipation. The restaurant industry demanded the right to hire these former slaves and pay them a zero dollar wage, meaning they were expected to live on customer’s tips alone.

The idea that tipped workers could be paid nothing as long as tips brought them to the minimum wage lasted until the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 as part of FDR’s New Deal. That’s when the minimum wage for tipped workers went from zero dollars to a whopping $2.13 an hour. So for the last 80 years, there’s only been a $2 increase in that hourly wage. For instance, in Michigan, the minimum wage for tipped workers is currently $3.52. In all, 43 states still have a lower wage for tipped workers based on this legacy of slavery, including New York, Massachusetts and Washington D.C., all of which have pathetically low wages.

Do you think people assume that these tipped workers all serve at fancy restaurants, racking up generous tips?
Well, the argument the restaurant association has made successfully in these 43 states is, “It’s okay because these workers are white men working in fine-dining steakhouses. They make a ton of money in tips.” But in reality, 70 percent of tipped workers in the U.S. are women. Most of these women work at IHOP, Denny’s and Applebee’s, and their median wage, including tips, is about $9 an hour. They live at three times the poverty rate as the rest of the U.S. workforce. They use food stamps at twice the rate as the rest of the U.S. workforce. And perhaps worst of all, they suffer from the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the country.

Why are these women more vulnerable to sexual harassment?
Because when you’re living off tips, the customer is always right. That means you have to tolerate whatever your customer does to you — however they touch you or talk to you. In these situations, your customer pays your bills, not your boss.

Our research also shows that when a female workforce is so reliant on customer tips, managers will encourage women to dress more revealing, to show more cleavage and wear tighter clothes to get more tips. This forced objectification makes a woman vulnerable to coworker and management harassment, too.

More largely, most women begin working in this industry when they’re very young, so their experiences inform what they think is acceptable and tolerable in the workplace. I’ve had so many women tell me, “I’ve been sexually harassed more recently in my career, and I didn’t do anything about it because it was never as bad as it was when I was a young woman working in restaurant.”

Fortunately, seven states, including California, got rid of this tipped worker system years ago. In these seven states, data shows you have higher restaurant sales per capita, higher job growth among tipped workers, higher rates of tipping and half the rate of sexual harassment — e.g., we find that management encourages women to dress sexy at one-third the rate as the states that still have lower rates for tipped workers.

Is this why you’ve said the restaurant industry is on the verge of some pretty significant policy changes as a result of #MeToo?
Yes, we were able to use this data and the #MeToo movement to convince Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo in New York to seriously consider the issue. He wanted to do something in response to #MeToo, and we said, “Here’s an easy policy for you to cut harassment in half in the industry with the highest rates: Get rid of the lower wage for tipped workers just like they’ve done in California.”

He agreed. He’s announced a series of hearings on the issue. Before that, we’d been talking to his office for many years. While they’d speak supportively, they never really did anything. But given the present moment, I think legislators feel pressure to actually do something. There’s now a tremendous opportunity to communicate to politicians and even restaurant owners that supporting one fair wage is a mechanism to cut harassment in half. This would be one of the biggest policy victories of the #MeToo movement yet.

On another note, what about the proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act? Would restaurants basically be able to garnish tips and redistribute them as they see fit?
Yeah. Since Trump took office, the Department of Labor has been working closely with the National Restaurant Association. They’ve proposed a rule that would make the National Restaurant Association’s dreams come true — to make tips the property of employers. In response, our organization, ROC, dropped a banner outside the Department of Labor that read, “Trump, don’t take our tips.”

Trump has complete control over what the Department of Labor does, and he’s a restaurant owner himself. I think the best mechanism to fight what he may do is to pass laws to supersede that rule at the state level. For example, California’s law not only says we have one fair wage — thus, eliminating the lower wage for tipped workers — it also establishes tip property rules that supersede anything Trump could enact.