Life as a waitress too often means low pay and sexual harassment
In the Guardian By Amber Akemi Piatt
When I was 16, I worked part-time in a Los Angeles ice cream parlor where customers could tip us to make us sing. Like turning the crank on a jack-in-the-box toy, they would drop coins in our glass tips jar, and we would have to spring into song. Want more songs? Drop in more tips. We were their dancing monkeys. While doing this, our male customers would routinely address my female coworkers and myself as sugar and sweetie. It always made me uncomfortable, but I depended on their tip money. They had a position of power over me, and I simply saw no alternative to accepting that reality.
When I was 21, I worked in a restaurant, in addition to my part-time hours at a research center, in order to pay for my “public” undergraduate education. At the restaurant, I was paid minimum wage and only received a portion of pooled tips. I was one of several new servers – a group comprised of about 2/3 women and 1/3 men. New servers were eligible to become supervising servers after a subjective approval process. All the supervising servers, who enjoyed their full tips and a portion of ours, were men. One supervising server in particular repeatedly invited me to bars so that he could offer to buy me drinks with the tip money I had worked hard to earn. Other male coworkers left me anonymous, sexually explicit notes on my windshield while I was parked in our employee parking lot. Feeling objectified, devalued and unsafe practically became part of my job description.
My experiences of degradation and sexual harassment while working tipped jobs were no anomaly. An estimated 90% of waitresses experience sexual harassment from customers and coworkers alike, according to one recent report.
Tipped work is one of the fastest growing occupations in the US but one of the lowest paid. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been frozen at $2.13 since 1991. 2/3 of tipped workers impacted by the archaic sub-minimum wage are women, and they earn, on average, only 79% of what their male counterparts earn. The disparities get even worse when we account for racism in the industry; black women servers are paid only 60% of what male servers overall are paid. Altogether, that is a $400,000 loss over a lifetime – enough money to fund ten college degrees.
The low wages compounded by the gender wage gap breeds a system of living paycheck to paycheck, which means women cannot do anything to jeopardize receiving their next one – not even report the discrimination or harassment they are experiencing. Unlike workers in other professions, tipped workers depend on the consumer directly for their wages. A tipped worker’s bottomline depends on soliciting and earning good tips from customers, but at what cost?
We need to value women’s work and put our money where our mouths are. There are many ways to do this. We can support federal legislation like the Healthy Families Act or the Raise the Wage Act. Alternatively, you can also vote with your wallet. Apps like the Roc National Diners’ Guide, developed by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, allow diners to find out if their favorite restaurants treat workers ethically. At a minimum, employers should pay their employees a livable wage for their area of residence, provide them with proper health insurance, offer them paid sick days, and give them opportunities for promotion. If you find out they don’t, why not speak up about it?
There are many ways tipped women workers are made vulnerable, and one is that we have turned a blind eye to their exploitation for too long. Dozens of coworkers and customers witnessed me being sexually harassed and did nothing – or worse, laughed it off. There were several teachable moments where someone could have intervened and changed the life lesson for a young woman like me. Instead of being told that the customer is always right, I could have been taught that all humans, regardless of their gender, have rights. Sexual harassment and gender pay gaps are not necessary evils, and we can all play a role in ensuring that women are empowered and treated with fairness and dignity.