‘You will be sexually harassed’: just one of the perils of working for tips

How are you doing today, sir? Dining in, or placing a to-go?” asks a cheery waitress. “Eating in,” a man in his late 20s replies. We are in a casual dining restaurant off a highway in eastern Michigan, Friday, mid-afternoon. Above him, televisions blare; behind him, squeaky-looking booths are starting to fill up.

The man places his order – a burger, some sides – and looks back at his phone, slouching on the leather bar chair. A few moments later, the bartender returns with a beer, which he drinks quickly.

After he leaves, from the other end of the empty bar, I squint my eyes as hard as I can to see what he has left behind for her.

It’s a measly one-dollar bill.

Here in Michigan, the sub-minimum tipped wage is $3.38 an hour. It is expected, by law, that the remaining $5.52 needed to reach the state’s minimum wage of $8.90 should be procured through tips provided by customers.

However measly the money is, though, it could be worse. In 18 American states, it’s just $2.13 an hour. The rate hasn’t changed since 1991.

Restaurant-goers across the US are required to not just cover the cost of their food; they are also expected to add on a significant percentage to their final check to subsidize the restaurant’s wage bill. Convention dictates a loose 15-20% should be added if service was satisfactory.

To non-Americans, the practice seems absurd. For starters, why is there a second minimum wage, well below the minimum – isn’t that an oxymoron? Why is the employer not paying for their own employees’ full salaries? And what happens if customers aren’t feeling generous?

But tipping has seeped deep into American culture. And a closer look raises issues that go beyond cultural curiosity: tipped workers are twice as likely to be living in poverty than other workers, and are mostly female.

Dianne Avery, a professor at the University of Buffalo, reflects on what a tipping system reveals of American society.

“In a country where we believe we have done away with master-servant relations, the existence of tipped workers show us this is far from the case. Because what tipped workers represent for the moment of that exchange [with a customer] is an intimate master-servant relation,” says Avery, who taught labor and employment law for decades.

Chasity Pulford, a 33-year-old Michigan server who has worked in restaurants for 18 years, rarely lets a smile slip from her face. “What can I talk to you about today?” she asks me, slightly surreally, as we sit down to talk. She is polite and bubbly, but never over-familiar.

She tells me she enjoys her work, and plans to remain in the industry. As a young mother, she was too busy working and providing for her child to ever think of going to college. Besides, she has seen people work their way through expensive degrees only to return to serving. She hardly even goes on dates and frowns upon online dating. She says online dating and butt plugs are the same — they are uncomfortable for some people.

Jobs are far from lacking. The restaurant industry is worth $799bn a year and employs 10% of Americans. In 2014, for the first time since the federal government started tracking it, Americans spent more eating out than buying groceries for the home. This trend continues.

“I am a really good server,” Pulford says. “Some people want to be spoken to, others want to be left alone. You have to be able to read your customers.” Being able to do this helps you get tips. (One of her male colleagues, one of the few in the restaurant, tells me he strives to be best friends with his customers by the end of the meal.)

“The work is very hard. It’s difficult,” Pulford adds, still grinning. Pulford has developed carpal tunnel syndrome in her arms and hands, and arthritis in her knees and feet. At 33, she still has three decades of work ahead of her.

The money tipped restaurant workers make can be good, she tells me, but it varies hugely, not just across restaurant locations and types, but within the same establishment. One server working exactly the same number of shifts as another could be making half the amount. You need to pursue the good shifts end of the week, get the busy sections, and be trusted to “close”.

“When I get to a new place, I know I’m at the bottom, and I need to get to the top fast. That takes me about six months,” she says.

Pulford says working six days a week in a place like this – a casual, modestly priced midwest dining establishment with pretty steady business – you can expect to make $300-$400 a week.

Once you get privileges, the right sections and shifts, you can hope for up to $600-$800 a week, although sometimes there’s no avoiding $400. If it’s slow, it’s slow – however hard you smile.

‘We have to jeopardize our integrity on a daily basis to pay rent’

In Texas, Tiffany Kirk, 27, has been a bartender since her early 20s, and in the industry since she was 16. Kirk is paid $2.13 an hour when she bartends. The Texas sub-minimum wage is the same as the federal one.

Because the IRS considers tips a form of income, Kirk says her base wage generally goes in taxes, which means that all of her wages come from tips. On bad weeks, her take-home pay is $200. At home, she has a six-year-old to feed. The inconsistency of the money is the toughest part. It makes it difficult to plan or save.

I spoke to her during Hurricane Harvey. Her shifts were canceled because the weather and its damage, and she was scrambling to figure out how to make her September rent on time.

According to the 2014 ROC study, women working in states with a $2.13 sub-minimum tipped wage were twice as likely to report experiencing sexual harassment than women where the minimum wage is the same for tipped and non-tipped workers.

“We have to jeopardize our integrity on a daily basis to pay rent. That is an extremely psychologically damaging position to get in,” Kirk says.

Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley explains that the tipped sub-minimum wage system “is a way that employers pass the wage bill on to someone else in order to not have to pay their workers”.

“That’s not a tip, that’s a part of the worker’s wage bill,” she says. Because very few establishments provide benefits, the tips collected must also cover the cost of health insurance, and time off like sick days, holidays and family days.

The people doing the smiling – the “emotion work” associated with good waitressing – are largely female. At a national level, two-thirds of the tipped workers are women. In Michigan, three-quarters of them are.

Julie Vogtman of the National Women’s Law Center, says anyone concerned with the gender pay gap should be paying attention to tipped workers’ struggles.

Of the top five jobs expected to add the most positions over the next decade, all are women-dominated industries, but four out of five of them are low wage, she points out. These jobs “put women and their families at a higher risk of poverty”.

‘Some men come in and they act like they want a strip show’

When tipping first came to America in the 19th century from Europe (which has since largely erased it) Americans were not taken by the practice, finding it “dehumanizing, demeaning and de-professionalising”, says Saru Jayaraman, the co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

At the time, it seemed contrary to American democratic ideals.

“They rejected it as the vestiges of a feudal system. They thought you should get good service regardless of how much you are able to tip,” she says.

But railway companies and restaurant owners fought successfully to have the practice allowed. While train workers unionized and abolished the system, servers never did.

Today, Jayaraman and other allies are fighting for the full abolition of the tipped sub-minimum wage under a campaign called “One Fair Wage”. They are not however – yet – calling for the abolition of tipping as a practice.

However much Pulford knows she needs the money, there are times when she doesn’t mind receiving less.

“If you’re good to me, I don’t care how much you tip.”

I ask her to explain what she means. “They can be demeaning, look down on you like you’re a college dropout. Like they don’t think you’re working a real job. Sometimes they don’t treat you like you’re a human being. Sometimes they treat you like a whore.”

“Who’s they?”

“The customers,” she responds, matter-of-factly. And just like that the shocking stories commence.

The time she had a hot steak thrown at her, and had to go and hide so no one would see her tears. That time she quit her job because the owner was coming on to staff, including girls who were underage. And the many times she felt like she was treated like a sex worker.

In 2014, a study that surveyed 688 restaurant workers found that a staggering 80% of women experienced sexual harassment from customers, two-thirds from managers, and half from co-workers. (Male restaurant workers also suffered sexual harassment, but to a lesser degree.)

The atmosphere of sexual harassment was endemic.

No one puts it as succinctly as Alison Baker, 34, who works as a server in a Mexican restaurant in Chicago.

“When you are hired as a waitress, it might as well be a part of the manual. You will be sexually harassed. You are relying on this person for your wage, so you can’t say anything,” she says. “It can be scary. You’re so vulnerable.”

Baker had a barista friend of hers die when she was younger, killed by one of her regulars. Acquiring stalkers is pretty standard, she tells me, but however much she hates it, when she dresses up and wears makeup, the truth is, the tips are better.

“I think the notion of a young attractive female waitress as a sex object has entered as a cultural norm,” says Avery, the law professor. She points out the emergence and popularity of “breastaurants” like Hooters, starting in the 1980s, where attractive waitresses are expected to wear form fitting clothes and flirt to get tips. But she goes back even further.

In 19th-century America, women who worked in food establishments were often assumed to be prostitutes. “Women only really entered the workforce during the second world war. Before that women’s place was considered to be in the home. So the thought was, well, if they are leaving the home, then what are they doing it for?

“It goes with the territory. Some men come in and they act like they want a strip show. Sometimes I think maybe I should work in a strip club. I feel like at least I might make more money”, says Baker..

My bartender is back, wiping down my section. She wears her blonde hair high above her head, a couple of flower clips to the front. Her black T-shirt tucked into dark blue jeans. Sometimes she calls me hun, sometimes sweetheart. I note all the men get called sir. I don’t really mind. I feel taken care of.

“How you doing there, sweetheart? You need anything else?”

The construction along the highway has been hurting business, I am told. But, being so close to the border, she’s had quite a few Canadians in the past few weeks, which has helped lift the spirits.

“Do they understand about tipping?” I ask.

“Not as much,” she says. “I think they pay servers full wages up there in Canada, so they don’t need to tip as much. Some of them know, others don’t.

“They’re real nice, though.”