How Working for Tips Fosters Sexual Harassment

When employees work for tips, the power dynamic between service-provider and customer is fundamentally changed.

Across the nation, six million people are directly employed in food and service occupations and earn a wage that is partially made up of tips (approximately 300,000 work in the greater Chicago area, where the Shriver Center on Poverty Law is based). Tipped workers in the restaurant industry are overwhelmingly women; for these women, sexual harassment is often part of the job, because the wages they earn are so closely tied to the amount of tips they receive.

When employees work for tips, the power dynamic between service-provider and customer is fundamentally changed: an employee’s income depends on each customer’s personal satisfaction with her performance. In far too many instances, this means putting up with customers who talk suggestively, pinch, corner, touch, grope, expose themselves, and rape.

While the accommodation and food service industry accounts for just 7 percent of the total U.S. workforce, which includes the vast majority of tipped workers, these workers account for 14 percent of sexual harassment claims reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where 66 percent of all female workers are paid in tips.

Saru Jayaraman, founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC United), explains that “the culture of sexual assault in the restaurant industry isn’t an accident, but a direct outcome of the subminimum wage and the fact that the majority of people living off tips are women. Countless young women are introduced to the world of work through the restaurant industry, and they go on to be more likely to accept forms of sexual harassment as just part of the job.”

In fact, tipped women workers who have been harassed in the workplace, even just one time, are 1.6 times more likely to endure harassment later in their life and career than women without a similar experience.

Seven states have successfully eliminated the subminimum wage, instead implementing one fair minimum wage for all workers in the state. In these states, tipping endures — but sexual harassment in the restaurant industry has been dramatically reduced.

A waitress in one of the seven states that have eliminated the subminimum wage is two times less likely to be harassed at her workplace than a waitress in one of the nineteen states that maintain the federal subminimum wage of $2.13. This same waitress is three times less likely to be asked by her employer to “sexualize” her behavior and appearance.

The tipped subminimum wage is debilitating for workers for a number of reasons, including its racialized history and disproportionate impact on the economic stability and advancement of African Americans. Its function as a catalyst for sexual harassment is both abhorrent and avoidable. Chicago can and should eliminate the tipped subminimum wage.

The Raise Chicago Coalition, of which the Shriver Center is a member, has introduced an ordinance that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 by July 1, 2021 and phase out the tipped subminimum wage over a four-year period, ending the lower wage by July 1, 2023. Together we can make the workplace fairer and safer for employees in the food and other service industries.

Join the fight for fair pay today! Email the Mayor of Chicago and your representatives in City Hall and tell them it’s time to eliminate the sub-minimum tipped wage in Chicago.

Reynolds Taylor contributed to this blog.

About the Author

Wendy Pollack
Wendy Pollack
Wendy Pollack
Women's Law & Policy Initiative Director


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