When a large part of your wages comes from customer tips, you may go out of your way to accommodate the customer. That can lead to great customer service, but it sometimes also means putting up with sexual harassment or other issues. Employers have a legal duty to step in when their employees are being harassed.
A recent study from One Fair Wage found that the pandemic has been hard on tipped workers. The group surveyed about 1,600 restaurant workers in five states and Washington, D.C., and found that over 80% have seen a decline in tips. Worse, there has been a spike in sexual harassment by customers.
Almost 60% of those surveyed also said they were reluctant to enforce mask use and social distancing with customers because it could affect their tips. That means that many restaurant workers feel pressured to risk their health in order to make a living wage.
“But I think the most horrific thing,” said a spokesperson for One Fair Wage, “that honestly all of us who are involved in the study were all blown away by, was the huge increase in hostility and sexual harassment.”
The report is titled “Take Off Your Mask So I Know How Much to Tip You,” because many male customers are making this demand of female service workers. It implies that any tip is related to the server’s attractiveness instead of good service.
Asking a server or delivery driver to remove her mask is asking her to risk her life and health. Yet service workers are having to put up with this dangerous and degrading request regularly these days.
Sexual harassment in tipped service work is partly structural
Employers do have a responsibility to take reasonable measures to prevent sexual harassment by customers. However, it can be difficult to say exactly what measures need to be taken.
In response to the study, the National Restaurant Association, a trade group, told NPR that it condemns customer harassment and is working to address the problem through workplace training.
The problem is that restaurants have few options for disciplining customers, other than banning individual bad actors.
One Fair Wage sees the problem as structural in nature. As long as service workers receive a large portion of their wages in tips, customers have immense power. When their livings are on the line, service workers simply can’t afford to refuse customer demands, no matter how irritating or demeaning.
The group hopes that more states will do away with the practice of paying service workers primarily in customer tips.
Have you had to suffer through sexual harassment or other illegal behavior because you rely on tips?