Sunday, February 26, 2017

Fawning for Favors: Tipping, Harassment, and the Need for One Minimum Wage

Controversies around tipping are seemingly everywhere these days. Tip jars seem to be proliferating at the same time as some restaurants are experimenting with banning tips. It’s always hard knowing who to tip and how much, and even more so when traveling abroad. Even the New York Times ran a story on “To Tip or Not to Tip Your Uber Driver” last year, and class action lawsuits prompted Uber to allow drivers to put up signs indicating that tips are appreciated.

But have you ever stopped to think about the origins of tipping and the continued implications for workers who primarily rely on tips for most of their income? As someone who studies work, I’m embarrassed to admit that I had not. Until last week. It was then that the University of Minnesota’s Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies sponsored a provocative presentation by Saru Jayaraman (co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and as the author of Behind the Kitchen Door, a fellow Cornell University Press author), a visit that was facilitated by the Minneapolis worker center CTUL.

The precise origins of tipping are unknown but a key early step seems to be the expectation dating back to at least the 17th century that visitors to private English homes give money to the host’s servants because of the extra work they’ve had to do. These aristocratic origins made tipping seem un-American and un-democratic in the 1800s and early 1900s as those who received tips were seen as servile rather than equals. Indeed, starting in 1909 several states outlawed tipping, though these laws didn’t survive for more than a decade.

What did survive were the racist and sexist foundations of beliefs on who was lowly enough to be exploited by tipping, such as African-American porters and immigrant maids. As nicely summarized by Kerry Segrave in Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities,

Tipping seems to have started with the traveling aristocracy and spread downward class by class. With the rise of wage labor in industrial capitalism, the number and position of servants declined. That same rise in industrial capitalism brought with it an increase in commercial eating and drinking establishments, hotels, and mass transportation wherein those who received tips—maids, valets, waiters, and so forth were found in large numbers. As a greater proportion of people dined out, stayed in hotels, traveled on trains, and so on, they found themselves in tipping situations. All of those who received tips in the past were regarded as social inferiors at a time when such distinctions were felt to be normal and natural—God’s will. All the services for which tips were given—serving meals, carrying luggage, making beds, drawing drinks, and so forth—were regarded as menial labor. Those legacies of who was tipped for what services remain with us today. (p. 5)

In addition to views on servility, another important legacy of the history of tipping is an enduring debate over whether tips should be included in the calculation of earnings when determining if workers reach at least some level of minimum earnings, . For several decades, the side favoring the inclusion of tips has been winning. Since 1966, U.S. federal law allows a lower sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. Currently, the federal minimum wage for workers who earn at least $30 per month in tips is a measly $2.13. And this has not increased since 1991! If workers do not earn sufficient tips, the employer needs to pay at least the standard (non-tipped) minimum wage, but this entails significant record-keeping and there are high rates of non-compliance.

Many states have their own minimum wage laws that exceed federal standards, but only seven states, including Minnesota, require that tipped workers earn the same minimum wage as others.  An eighth state (Maine) recently enacted minimum wage changes that will lead to tipped workers earning the full minimum wage, though there is already a movement to undo this change. And Minneapolis is considering excluding tipped workers from a possible increase in a city minimum wage.

Which brings me back to Jayaraman’s provocative talk passionately arguing that this change being considered by Minneapolis would be a significant step backwards. You might be thinking, why is this a problem? Don’t tipped workers bring home more than the minimum wage? Well…not as much as you might think. Even including tips, tipped occupations are routinely among the lowest-paying jobs in the economy. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly earnings for waiters and waitresses in 2015 was $9.25 including tips; the 75th percentile was only $11.65.

But the more fundamental and eye-opening issue revealed by Jayaraman is the pervasive power differential created by a subminimum wage that leads to endemic sexual harassment. Most restaurant servers are women. And when their living depends on earning tips, they are exceptionally vulnerable to unwanted sexualization and sexual behavior because they are beholden to the customer. Indeed, the report "The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry" by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United revealed that 60 percent of women restaurant workers experience sexual harassment, and over 50 percent report that they experience harassment on at least a weekly basis. These rates of harassment are highest in states with the $2.13 minimum wage for tipped employees. As Jayaraman noted, this is a pretty disgusting way to introduce millions of young women to the working world. Consequently, the One Fair Wage campaign is pushing for an end to the subminimum wage for tipped workers—not an end to tipping, but an end to the subminimum wage. I recommend their video "The Time Is Now."

In 1896, Gunton’s Magazine wrote that rather than working for wages, tipped workers are “fawning for favors” and thus, tipping undermines the personal freedom and dignity of tipped workers (July, p. 16). More than 100 years later, this continues to be particularly true for tipped workers who lack the protections of the full minimum wage. 

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