Waiting Tables When the Customer is Always Right

November 7, 2014

Between the ages of 14 and 28, I held various cocktail server, restaurant, and waitressing jobs in Milwaukee, Tucson, Boston, and New York, where my minimum wage remained $2.13 an hour, plus tips. As servers know, there are good tip days and bad, and the good days usually make up for the bad, especially if you play by the rules — being polite, attentive, and available. For women, it often also means quietly accepting the humiliation of sexual harassment.

In high school, I was making between $80 and $100 a night at local chain restaurant. When a customer angrily walked out because I refused to give him my phone number, my manager made me pay his bill, and told me I should have “at least given a fake one.” Another time, I reported that a customer was being aggressive and had followed me to the bathroom. My manager laughed. “Well, what do you want me to do? Do you want a tip or not?” he said.

I was 16.

In college, I worked at a brewery near campus serving locals, tourists, drunk frat boys and university professors. We had a steak sandwich on the menu called the “Good Lovin’,” which never failed to inspire winning lines such as, “Can I get some Good Lovin’?” (har har) or “How about I give you some Good Lovin’?”

The “Blonde” beer on the menu was also provocative: “Can I get a Brunette?” Always, I forced a smile and let each frisky customer think he was the most clever. I knew that if I wanted a tip, I didn’t have a choice.

Accruing tips required deference and compliance, even in the face of harassment that ranged from flirting and sexual innuendos to touching and physical advances. It seemed the more money I made, the more indecent the proposals. While working at a higher-end restaurant in downtown Boston, a customer left $200 on his $40.00 tab, then waited for me outside, as if the tip bought me for the night. Another left an extra hotel room key with his room number under a wad of cash. I didn’t even know his name.

Every waitress has stories, but the truth is that in the restaurant industry, such customer-server interactions are par-for-the-course. Management rarely saw a need to intervene and often chuckled at the myriad ways we put up with abuse to earn our money, even implying that we should be flattered.

But, we didn’t play along for attention — we played to get paid.

After a decade of waitressing, I had been offered countless phone numbers and notes on napkins, met men who wanted to pose with me in photos, experienced hand-grabbing, hand-holding, whispered come-ons, and at least a dozen physical advances. While employment laws and litigation may curb sexual harassment by a co-worker or management, the tipping culture generally promotes and rewards harassment by customers and compliance by the server. After all, “the customer is always right.”

The restaurant industry currently has over 10 million workers and is one of the largest employers of women in the U.S.According to a recent report, “The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry,” published by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, 90% of women in tipped restaurant positions have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The tipped labor market is made up of more than 70% women, making them more vulnerable to sexual harassment. According to the report, 37% of all sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from restaurant industry employees, even though only 7% of the workforce is employed by restaurants.

The National Restaurant Association, widely known as “the other NRA,” is the10th most influential lobbying group in Congress and has made it clear that it benefits from the tip-as-wage system. The agency boasts that it struck a deal to allow a modest overall minimum wage, so long as the wage for tipped workers remained at $2.13. The lobby has been aggressively proactive to block efforts to raise minimum wages for tipped employees, which is why the minimum wage has remained $2.13 since 1991.

Though management can be held liable for third-party sexual harassment (harassment by a customer rather than co-worker or supervisor), servers who depend on tips are less likely to report misconduct. When a customer is paying wages rather than employer, there is a significant gap in worker protection. Servers who depend on wages are caught in a Catch-22 of calling out a customer and losing compensation, or accepting harassment in order to get paid their fair, earned wage. According to the report, the more a server relies on tips, the less likely the worker will report sexual harassment.

Worse, for this reason, participation in the service industry can dangerously shift how women view sexual harassment later in their lives. Saru Jayaraman, co-director and co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, noted in a Democracy Now interview:

“You’ve got millions more young women who this is their first job in high school, college or graduate school. And this is how we are teaching young women in America what is tolerable and acceptable in the workplace, so much so that we’ve now been approached by literally thousands of women from across America saying, you know, ‘I was a tipped worker in college. I now am a corporate executive or a union organizer. I’ve been sexually harassed recently on the job, 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.’”

This isn’t the case everywhere in the US. There are seven states that pay a regular minimum wage apart from tips: Alaska, California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Montana and Minnesota. And the “One Fair Wage” movement, spearheaded by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, is working to increase that number.

Management, customers and even servers may argue that without tips, service will suffer. Living in Europe for several years now, where the tipping culture is much different, I will say that has not been my experience. While servers often lack the deferential and obsequious air of many servers in the U.S., the job gets done, and the food always makes it to the table. Most importantly, servers are not forced to endure harassment, simply to make a living wage.

Justifying the tipping system despite the inherent culture of harassment is only a benefit to restaurant owners and conglomerates that have long been able to skirt liability and fair wages while also turning a profit. The One Fair Wage movement offers some hope, restoring the dignity of and giving tipped workers leverage when they face sexual harassment at work. It’s shedding light on the underbelly of the restaurant industry, giving servers the right to draw a critical and fundamentally decent line: No, the customer is not always right.

Image: Zanthia via photopin