Last week, the board of elections in Washington, DC, approved a ballot measure for the upcoming primary election on June 19 that will ask voters whether to raise the minimum wage for tipped employees in the restaurant industry from its current rate of $3.33 per hour to match the capital city’s minimum wage for all other workers by 2026. Advocates of the measure are framing it as a way of protecting low-income workers, especially women, from harassment and abuse, the Washington Post reported:
[C]ritics of the split-wage system say some workers face intimidation and retaliation when they tell their bosses that tips came up short. They say low-income workers in the restaurant industry deserve the same predictable income as other employees. …
“In this Me Too moment, in this Time’s Up moment, we have to stand up for women and empower women and really call this two-tier wage system for what it is: a source of sexual harassment,” said Diana Ramirez, director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center D.C., which is sponsoring the ballot initiative.
“If you know that you are getting a base wage from the employer, and a customer is acting inappropriately with you, you don’t have to put up with that behavior anymore to make a good tip,” she said.
Restaurant owners and some workers who earn much more than the minimum wage on the basis of tips oppose the measure, saying it will eat into restaurants’ already thin profit margins and force them to raise prices, cut jobs, and perhaps abandon tips altogether in favor of a flat hourly wage.
Opponents of abandoning the tipped minimum wage say there is little evidence that sexual harassment is related to tipping. Increasingly, however, advocates for restaurant workers are pushing for change to this system on the basis that reliance on tips puts employees at the mercy of their customers and forces some of them to put up with unacceptable behavior or risk losing needed income. The New York Times recently profiled several restaurant workers for a feature on harassment in the industry:
In interviews, more than 60 servers and bartenders — nervous teenagers and seasoned veterans, students and single mothers, a few men but mostly women — shared stories of crude comments, propositions, groping and even stalking from customers. They work in diners, chain restaurants and high-end dining establishments, and they reported hourly take home pay ranging from $8 to more than $40.
A number of efforts have arisen in the last several years to protect servers from harassment. Some restaurants have adopted no-tipping policies, eliminating the leverage of a gratuity. In Oakland, Calif., a restaurant called Homeroom devised a color-coded system to monitor customer behavior: a yellow flag if a server senses a potential problem, an orange one for inappropriate comments and a red flag for overtly sexual comments or touching, at which point the customer is asked to leave.
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. New York recently cited harassment as one of the reasons it was looking into the way tipped workers are paid.
While tipping remains the norm at most establishments in the US, some restaurateurs have tried to do away with what they see as an archaic practice, either replacing tips with a standard service fee or factoring the cost of service into menu prices and paying servers a higher flat wage. Danny Meyer, the founder of Shake Shack and CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group, abolished tipping at his restaurants in 2015 as the first step of a broader campaign to change the culture of the restaurant industry from a high-turnover model to one more focused on retaining and developing talent — though that initiative by Meyer and others has met with mixed results.
Of course, customers aren’t the only potential source of harassment in the restaurant industry. In a recent investigation by Eater, several former employees of Meyer’s company allege that they were harassed by chefs and that the HR department’s response was more protective of the alleged perpetrators than of their victims. In recent months, USHG has moved to address this culture problem, stressing its zero-tolerance policy on harassment and promoting more women to leadership positions.