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Does tipping culture force servers to put up with harassment?

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The #MeToo movement has made it to workplaces where a substantial portion of workers’ wages are made up of tips. When servers and bartenders rely on tips to make a living wage, does it force them to put up with harassment or abuse by patrons? If it does, would decreasing their dependence on tips give them more power to resist?

The Associated Press recently reported an example of what restaurant servers feel forced to put up with. A customer made a comment that he was going to grab Nadine M.’s butt and she warned him not to try. He made her pay by “running me around as much as possible,” she says. She felt she had to put up with it because she needed a tip.

Of the approximately 2 million people in the U.S. working as restaurant servers, about 70 percent are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide, they make a median average of $9.61 per hour.

Federal law requires them to be paid only a base rate of $2.13, as long as the addition of their tips brings their pay up to at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

In New York, tipped food service workers must receive base pay of at least $7.50 with tips bringing them up to at least the local minimum wage. (The base rate is higher in New York City and among other types of tipped workers.)

In seven states, traditionally tipped workers are paid the full minimum wage. There are 25 other states that, like New York, require a higher base pay than the federal minimum.

An advocacy group called Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROCU), says that when these workers are paid the full minimum wage, they report less harassment.

“This is about the power imbalance that women face on the job,” said a spokesperson for ROCU.

Some servers agree. Others have concerns.

“As soon as they hear that I’m already making enough money, I just don’t feel like anyone’s going to put forth the extra effort to compensate the servers,” said one New York City server who opposes having servers make the full minimum wage.

She added that harassment on the job is a real problem, but she did not think the minimum wage would act as a shield. “They would just not tip and continue to act the way they were inclined,” she said.

It does seem true that harassment is more common when women are physically or economically vulnerable. Would it help to ensure that food service workers receive the full minimum wage regardless of tips? Does earning the minimum wage give people enough power to resist harassment? What changes would it take?

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