This Might Be the Biggest Reason to End the Tipped Minimum Wage

2014 627 waitr fw“It took me only a week to realize that part of my job included allowing myself to be a victim of sexual harassment,” she wrote. (Photo: Tyler B Dvorak / Flickr)

Women represent 72 percent of all workers in tipped-wage jobs – those with a federal minimum wage of just $2.13 an hour. That means that women are disproportionately placed in the very compromising position of their having to please customers and impress employers in order to earn enough tips to have decent take-home pay.

Too often, that means enduring sexual harassment.

Thirty-seven percent of all sexual harassment reports filed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from women in the restaurant industry, making it the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the United States.

“It’s a demeaning situation to be in when you earn $2.13 an hour as a woman and you are completely reliant on customers’ largess, off the mercy of the clientele,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center, an organization dedicated to protecting workers’ rights and wages.

Earlier this year, the Feminist Wire published Jennifer McGreevey’s account of her experience as a young New York City waitress in a restaurant owned by a man whose “specific treatment of the waitresses was based upon their willingness to respond to his flirtations.”

“It took me only a week to realize that part of my job included allowing myself to be a victim of sexual harassment,” she wrote.

After several weeks of tolerating the abuse, she argued back against her boss – and was summarily fired. She wrote that she felt that she had no recourse. “I was supposed to take my tip-dependent salary, my aching waitress feet, and the memories of faking a smile through days and nights of constant sexual harassment, served with your spinach pie or chicken kebab, and sit in a corner and be quiet about it.”

Fortunately, the EEOC has had some recent success in prosecuting sexual harassment claims. In March 2014, the organization settled on behalf of Dorothy Hannah and other female workers previously employed at Ricardo’s Restaurant Inc. of Pennsylvania. The establishment agreed to pay $20,000 after its co-owner was charged with making frequent comments of a “crude or sexual nature” and touching his female employees in a sexual manner.

This victory came shortly after another EEOC suit was announced against Red Lobster, a popular subsidiary of Darden Restaurants Inc., the world’s largest full-service restaurant company. Filed in September of 2013, the suit quotes consistent “pervasive sexual misconduct” by a male Red Lobster manager, who grabbed, groped, and pressed his groin against female employees. The decision in this case is still outstanding.

The attitude at the root of such a high prevalence of sexual harassment in the restaurant service industry is abhorrent, but predictable. It is based on the misguided presumption that a tip is extra, and should only be awarded for extraordinary work. But, too frequently, a tip is neither extra nor enough.

We have Herman Cain, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate of Tea Party fame and the “9-9-9 plan,” to thank for that. In 1996, Cain negotiated a deal as CEO of the National Restaurant Association that allowed for a moderate increase to the full minimum wage, as long as the tipped minimum wage remained unchanged indefinitely. And it has.

By law, companies are required to “top up” their employees’ wages if their pay (subminimum wage plus tips) does not meet the full minimum wage set by the state or the federal government. But this rarely happens. Between 2010 and 2012, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor conducted approximately 9,000 investigations in the service sector of the restaurant industry and found an 84 percent noncompliance rate with this rule. Because discussion of the subminimum wage is often buried under discussion of the full minimum wage, these issues, including sexual harassment and wage theft, are just not considered.

The existence of the tipped minimum wage is a loophole that allows restaurants to underpay their employees, 40 percent of whom are mothers. And it is disrupting America’s economic growth. Sixteen percent of tipped workers rely on food stamps to feed their families. That is more than twice the rate of the rest of the general U.S. workforce.

Thirty-two states, including the District of Columbia, require employers to pay their tipped workers more than the federally mandated $2.13. But, except in seven states that do not allow for one, the tipped minimum wage is significantly less than the full minimum wage for non-tipped work. And 19 states still abide by the inadequate and outdated $2.13 figure.

Republicans have blocked every attempt to increase both the full and tipped minimum wage increase during the current session of Congress. In response to Congressional obstruction, President Obama signed an executive order in February of this year increasing the full and tipped minimum wages of federal contractors to $10.10 and $4.90 an hour, respectively. While the limited scope of the executive order is disappointing, it is an encouraging signal that the real-life implications of such low wages are a concern to this administration.

Although the prospects may seem bleak for broader action on the minimum wage, Jayaraman remains optimistic. “There are moneyed forces that have controlled our system, but there is nothing that the people cannot achieve once they expose those forces and once they resist.”

As we advance further into the 21st century, women are being held back under an antiquated wage law that leaves them vulnerable to abuse. No one can survive on the subminimum wage. Not women. Not men. Not families. And no one deserves to try to.