At the Tipping Point

Grace Madden
Social Policy

In the wake up the Me Too movement we are called to closely examine the practices which shape the  culture of our workplaces and how these practices can foster harassment. Within this much-needed conversation, one deceiving practice has slipped under the rug: tipping. There are currently 4.3 million Americans who are not guaranteed a $7.25 minimum wage. They are our tipped workers. About 3 million of these workers power one of America’s largest industries. They are the hosts, bartenders, cooks, and waitresses who keep the restaurant machine running. Yet, they  make up four out of the ten lowest-paying jobs in America. As tipped workers, their federal minimum wage is a measly $2.13 an hour. This is based on the understanding that customers will supplement this with tips. If these tips do not fill the space between $2.13 and $7.25 an hour, employers are required to fill the gap. However, this is often not the case and the U.S Department of Labor reports an 84 percent violation rate in employers ensuring their workers are paid minimum wage. While simple, in theory, tipping and the tipped minimum wage create an environment in which workers must depend on tips to survive. This dependency creates a culture where sexual harassment is tolerated as workers as forced to balance a living wage with harrasment. 

Consider the power imbalance between tippers and servers, two-thirds of whom are female and 44% who are women of color. Without a living wage, workers are forced to tolerate sexual harassment to survive on a wage of $2.13. The financial insecurity that comes from depending on tips and the fear of retaliation makes tipped workers easy targets for abuse from employers and customers and less likely to bring complaints. Given this power dynamic, it is unsurprising that the restaurant industry has five times the average sexual harassment claims per worker. Restaurant workers have reported high levels of harassment, with 66 percent reporting harassing behaviors from management and 78 percent from customers. Additionally, sexual harassment continues to disproportionately affect women of color who despite making up only 13.6% of the accommodation and food services industry, file 31.4 percent of sexual harassment charges to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC.

Thus tipping becomes an innocently disguised loophole for exploitation where women and, especially women of color, must tolerate and cater to sexual harassment to earn a fair wage. In a 2020 study by the University of Nebraska, researchers found that female bartenders were more sexualized and sexual behavior was seen as more legitimate than bartenders not receiving tips. This study and the relationship it illustrates becomes clearer considering that workers who earn a guaranteed wage report half the rate of sexual harassment compared to workers in states with a $2.13 subminimum wage. Additionally, women workers in states with a $2.13 minimum wage reported that they were three times more likely to be told by management to alter their appearance and to wear ‘sexier,’ more revealing clothing than women in equal treatment states.

These practices can have long-lasting implications for women in the workplace. About one-third of Americans enter the workforce through the restaurant industry and 50 percent of Americans will work in the industry at some point in their lives, according to a 2017 study by the National Restaurant Association. These early experiences set women up to experience harassment later in life as they are taught early in their careers to tolerate those behaviors, and women who have previously worked as tipped workers are 1.6 times more likely to live with inappropriate behaviors in the workplace than women who are currently employed as tipped workers. 

Given the harmful implications tipping creates, it seems like an easy fix to simply do away with the tipped minimum wage and pay workers a standard minimum wage. Beyond the social good this would do for employees, economic benefits are reported as well. The seven states that have done away with the tipped minimum wage have reported higher restaurant sales per capita, higher job growth in the restaurant industry, and higher job growth among tipped workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute. more workers live below the poverty line in states where the tipped minimum wage structure is in place, compared with those living in states where employers must pay the same minimum wage to all hourly workers, Tipping and the tipped minimum wage are so much more than a low wage; they are practices that demean workers while creating an environment where exploitation and sexual harassment run rampant.

Grace Madden

Hi! My name's Grace Madden and I'm an 18 year old from NYC. I'm a recent high school graduate and an incoming freshman at Bowdoin College. I've always been passionate about politics and social justice and am excited to be involved with YIP!