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November 7, 2017 by

We Need To Talk About Sexual Harassment in Tip-Based Jobs

coffeehouse-2600877_1920When H was 23, she worked as a server at a restaurant known for its brunch menu. One morning, she told me, she was in the kitchen making coffee with another employee who was prepping eggs. “He was maybe—ten feet away from me,” she said. H asked him how his weekend had gone, and in response, “he crossed the room, kissed me, and then went back to his spot and answered my question.”

She mentioned the incident to a male server, who dismissed it, but later, the man who kissed her was fired, after harassing and assaulting other female members of the staff. “It didn’t occur to me to mention it to anyone higher up,” H said. “I thought it was the kind of thing you just have to deal with.”

If you’ve ever worked in food service, like a restaurant or a coffee shop, you know that much of your time and energy are spent trying to get good tips, which, if you’re a server, make up the bulk of your take-home pay. People eating in restaurants might not know this, but the U.S. federal minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 an hour. “You’re not making anything if you’re not getting tips, said H. “So if you’re going to do something that jeopardizes your tip, it had better be worth it.”

After the restaurant, H worked at a coffee shop, where she had more stable pay, but still had to contend with the issue of tips, as well as maintaining relationships with regular customers, even when they harassed her, as one man did, regularly making comments about her weight. “There’s this feeling that you have to be nice to everyone, so I never said anything about it. He wasn’t attacking me, I wasn’t physically unsafe. I was 24 then, though. If it was now, I would have acted differently.”

Most servers and baristas aren’t unionized, so if you are being harassed by someone, be it a customer or a fellow employee, there’s little to no recourse in situations like these. In H’s case, she could have reported the customer to the manager, who could have said something to him, which meant he might not have come back. (Excellent for H, bad for business.) H also could have been fired if she reported him, should her boss decide he didn’t want to risk losing the customer, but would be fine replacing H with another employee. 

G spent graduate school working at a restaurant in the Chicago area. While she said she’d never been sexually harassed at work, she did observe some consistently sexist behavior, as well as some gendered treatment of staff that would have been dealt with differently should the employees of the restaurant have had access to a union. “A couple of female baristas got fired because they had ‘attitude’,” she said. “But the male baristas acted very similarly.” In fact, “the men who worked for them regularly got away with not doing their jobs properly—coming in late, for example.” 

In G’s case, reporting these incidents to her superiors was out of the question—the owners were the managers, and had shown preferential treatment for men in the past, so it seemed unlikely that any action would be taken. She stopped working at the restaurant after she asked for time off in order to give a lecture, and when she returned she wasn’t on the schedule anymore. The inconsistent nature of the work was already causing her financial hardship.

“Week-to-week, I was never sure what kind of money I’d be bringing in,” she said. “I’d make great tips on weekends, but then they’d schedule me for the weekdays instead of weekends, and I’d make easily 1/3 the tips I’d make on a weekend, and so I really struggled to pay bills. It was completely unpredictable hours at the restaurant. There was no consistency of days, and also, no breaks until the end of the shift.”

K, who worked in the cafe at a large national chain bookstore before she began graduate school, reported that the store didn’t hesitate to deal with harassment of its employees, replacing security guards and other employees when necessary, and even providing an anonymous hotline for folks to report incidents. “When I had a creepy customer, my manager took him aside and talked to him. He obviously denied it, but never crept on me again. And at my store, you could call someone and they would take the counter for you if you needed.”  While issues of harassment seemed to be addressed, there was an unofficial policy about employees discussing their wages with one another. This secrecy is particularly detrimental to women, given the gender pay gap. When she looked for the policy in the employee handbook, she found that it wasn’t written down, because it was illegal to enforce.

K continues to work at the cafe on school breaks. “They need me more than I need them,” she said. This is an ideal situation—there’s a demonstrated intolerance for harassment of workers, and you aren’t necessarily depending on the work for your daily needs. But if this isn’t a description of the service job you have, it’s hard to discern how to deal with harassment, especially when the nature of the work demands that you interact with customers in a certain way.

“Flirtation is expected, it’s part of the job,” said H. “The question is, how far does the customer take it? Do they just give you a good tip, or do they follow you out to your car?”

At the end of our conversation, H told me that as a server, you’re the one who’s in charge of who you take on as a customer (although it depends on the restaurant), which means, you might be able to avoid the table of drunk men who will likely harass you, but give you a good tip. There’s a coercive aspect to tipping, of course, and that seems inescapable. You might want to avoid that table of bros, but you need the tip, so maybe you’re tolerating behavior you shouldn’t be so that you can go home with money, and maybe you don’t report it to your boss because you don’t want to be seen as someone who complains. There are so many intersecting pieces here—the very real need for money, along with the internalized sexism we’re carrying around (don’t make a fuss, maybe it’s your fault, etc.), and the refusal on the part of people in power to hold men accountable for their actions. Ultimately, it seems, it’s up to us to save each other, and ourselves. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.