Does tipping contribute to sexual harassment in restaurants?

Posted in Sexual Harassment,Sexual Harassment by Industry on December 7, 2015

In October, we wrote about the pervasive problem of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. For a number of reasons, restaurant workers lower on the chain of command (especially wait staff) face a significant risk of sexual harassment, both from other staff and from customers. Although more women tend to face harassment than men, the problem affects both genders.

Many believe that low wages are a major reason why waitresses and waiters are likely to be harassed and unlikely to report it. Specifically, many states have laws that allow employers to pay lower hourly wages to tipped employees. The assumption is that tips will raise hourly pay to at least minimum wage.

California is one of just a handful of states where tipped workers must be paid minimum wage without factoring in income from tips. But in a large number of states, tipped workers can be paid as little as $2.13 per hour. Employers are supposed to supplement wages when tips don’t bring hourly pay up to minimum wage, but this is difficult to enforce.

The other problem with such laws is that they force tipped workers to rely on the generosity of customers. Many workers feel compelled to put up with abusive language, inappropriate comments and even unwelcome touching from customers for fear that they won’t receive a much-needed tip if they complain.

The results of a survey by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United show that there is a fairly strong correlation between wage laws and harassment. Women in states with lower minimum wages for tipped employees were twice as likely to say they have experienced harassment by customers, compared to states with wage laws like those in California.

Of course, getting rid of alternative minimum wage laws would not end sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. But it could significantly improve working conditions for tipped employees by removing a barrier to reporting it.