Put up with harassment for a $2.60 tip?

Restaurants that are trying no-tipping policies have struggled with opposition.
Restaurants that are trying no-tipping policies have struggled with opposition.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • The balancing act plays out every day in restaurants across America: Servers who rely on tips decide where to draw the line when a customer goes too far.

They ignore comments about their bodies, laugh off proposals for dates and deflect behaviour that makes them uncomfortable or angry - all in pursuit of a US$2 (S$2.60) or US$20 tip.

In the restaurant industry, the cultural reckoning over sexual harassment has felled celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali and spotlighted misbehaviour by co-workers.

But servers and bartenders also face abuse from another front: the millions of Americans who dine out every year. Their workplaces are environments where alcohol lightens the mood and erodes boundaries.

A "customer is always right" ethos often tilts the equation - creating the kind of power imbalance that has become front and centre in a broader conversation about sex and gender in the workplace.

In interviews, more than 60 servers and bartenders shared stories of crude comments, propositions, groping and even stalking.

A number of efforts have arisen in the last several years to fend off harassment. Workers' advocates are pushing about a dozen states and the District of Columbia to change laws that allow restaurants to pay servers less than the minimum wage, making them more dependent on tips.

Most servers and bartenders are not union-organised and many restaurants do not have human resources departments.

Servers also said they were reluctant to report anything but the most egregious behaviour from customers. Dealing with it simply came with the job, they felt.

While legal action almost always targets misbehaviour by managers or co-workers, courts have also ruled that employers can be liable for not protecting workers from abusive customers.

Managers can shield workers by switching a waitress' table or asking an offending customer to leave. But even for bosses with good intentions, misbehaviour is difficult to police.

Ms Kaycee Lowe Wallace, who owned the Trolley restaurant in Hugo, Oklahoma, did not know that a customer was groping one of her servers until she got a call from the young woman's grandmother.

Ms Saru Jayaraman, president of Restaurant Opportunities Centres United, an advocacy group for restaurant workers, said: "Their lives and experience of work is shaped by that initial experience.

"I've had Hollywood actresses, senators, IBM executives, lawyers tell me, 'I have been sexually harassed later in my career, but I didn't do anything about it because it was never as bad as it was when I was a young woman working in restaurants.'"

Many servers acknowledged that they enjoyed a bit of cheerful flirting. Some welcomed compliments about their appearance.

Some labour rights advocates, convinced that tipping contributes to harassment, argue for eliminating the lower minimum wage that most restaurants pay workers who earn tips, which the federal government sets at US$2.13 an hour.

If you increase their base pay, the thinking goes, servers will be less dependent on tips, freeing them to push back against harassment.

Ms Jayaraman's group has lobbied states to change laws and require restaurants to pay the full minimum wage, a practice already adopted by seven states.

But servers themselves are divided on the issue. Many worry that the move would prompt customers to tip less while raising costs that would force restaurants to close.

Some restaurants are trying a radical approach: abandoning tipping altogether. While a primary motive is reducing the pay gap between servers and kitchen staff, who typically make less, it also makes servers and managers more willing to stand up to abusive customers.

"I felt empowered as a manager and staff felt more empowered," said Ms Kim DiPalo, who was the general manager of Manhattan restaurant Gramercy Tavern when it ended tipping in 2016.

Instead of sending a manager to take over a troublesome table, she was more likely to ask offenders to leave, no longer needing to worry about protecting her staff's tips.

But restaurants that are trying no-tipping policies have struggled with opposition too.

Ms Erin Wade, owner of Homeroom, said she would like to end tipping, which she considers demeaning. But her servers were against it, mindful of the impact on their pay.

Ms Wade herself acknowledged: "There's no way we could pay them nearly as much as they're making with tips."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2018, with the headline 'Put up with harassment for a $2.60 tip?'. Subscribe