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Opinion

A deep cost to tipped workers in New York

Restaurant servers don’t make a minimum wage, and working for tips costs us something you can’t put a price on: dignity.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United co-founder and president Saru

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United co-founder and president Saru Jayaraman, left, comedian and former waitress Amy Poehler, center, and restaurant worker Shanita Thomas attend a rally for fair wages for restaurant workers in Manhattan in February. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

After 11 years in the NYC restaurant industry, I know it’s hard to make ends meet when you rely on tips.

Restaurant servers don’t make a minimum wage, and working for tips costs us something you can’t put a price on: dignity. For women, that means putting up with abuse, including sexual harassment from the same people we need to please to put food on our own tables. It’s a power imbalance that we can right by paying servers One Fair Wage — the minimum wage before tips.

Across NYC, tipped workers make what’s called a subminimum wage from $7.50 to $8.65 an hour; the general minimum hourly wage for everyone else is $10.40 to $13. That means when a patron puts his hand on our waist, hips and shoulders, and calls us “Sugar,” we’re less likely to push him off because we need that extra $3 to $5.60. We also don’t want to offend him because in the hospitality industry, relationships are vital. So, we’re more likely to put up with abuse and harassment. But even if a server reports the incident, it might not matter. Managers often don’t take complaints seriously.

According to a Harvard Business Review study that surveyed 76 female servers over three months, sexual harassment is a frequent experience. In the first month, 75 percent of the servers reported an incident, 70 percent in the second month and 74 percent in the third. And Professor Michael Lynn at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations says tips are related to a server’s physical appearance, gender and physical contact, not a reflection of actual service.

The restaurant industry, where 70 percent of workers are women, is the largest source of sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Between 2010 to 2016, servers filed 162,872 claims of harassment, and employers paid out $698.7 million in penalties.

There’s a solution: One Fair Wage would pay tipped workers the general minimum wage, and cut sexual harassment. A study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center in the seven states that pay servers the minimum wage — including Alaska, California and Nevada — shows servers make equal or better tips and experience less sexual harassment.

Tipped workers deserve to earn a minimum wage like everyone else. Tips can be an expression of gratitude for a job well done, not the price of our dignity.

Shanita Thomas is a longtime restaurant server who now owns a catering company.

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