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Black restaurant servers were tipped less than others in retaliation for enforcing social distancing, report says

The subminimum wage is a legacy of slavery that disproportionately harms Black workers today

A closed restaurant in New York City on Oct. 15, 2020. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Black food service workers whose incomes largely derive from tips have earned less during the coronavirus pandemic than their White counterparts and are more likely to experience retaliation for enforcing social distancing and mask rules, according to a new report by One Fair Wage, a national worker-advocacy group.

Black restaurant workers also fared worse on other measures amid a recession that has especially devastated communities of color, with Black unemployment reaching nearly 10 percent. They were more likely to contract the coronavirus or know someone who died of the disease, and were less able to obtain unemployment insurance, the report said.

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The findings resulted from a survey that One Fair Wage conducted of tipped service workers who received aid from a relief fund that the organization started last March. About 4,000 out of 40,000 workers in New York, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and D.C. responded to the emailed survey.

Nearly 90 percent of Black workers said their tips dropped 50 percent or more after returning to work during the pandemic, compared with 72 percent of White workers, the report said. More than 70 percent of Black workers said customers tipped them less for enforcing social distancing and mask rules, compared with 60 percent of White workers.

Many restaurant workers make a base wage near the $2.13 federal minimum wage for tipped workers, and rely on tips for the majority of their total earnings, said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley, who is lobbying to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers.

“We already knew customers tipped Black people less than White people before the pandemic, but then to be punished more than other workers for trying to enforce these rules makes this an issue of life and death,” Jayaraman said. “The very divided nature of the nation is taking a toll on service workers having to serve the people who are the least likely to want to follow public health protocols. And the people bearing the highest brunt are, as always, Black workers.”

Black food service workers saw their median earnings drop by 3.5 percent over the past 24 months — the greatest decline in wages of all racial groups — while White and Latino food service workers saw their wages increase from before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2019 and 2020.

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The practice of relying on tips to pay workers emerged after the end of slavery as a way to exploit recently freed Black people, the report said. Employers used it to avoid paying workers a livable wage, especially in the railroad and hospitality industries, which were the largest employers of African Americans.

“The subminimum wage is a direct legacy of slavery and a source of ongoing discrimination,” Jayaraman said. “Even though they work in the same restaurants as White workers and provide the same quality of service, Black workers get tipped less and punished by customers more. As long as you have a $2 wage and expect everybody to live off of tips, Black people are going to suffer more than White workers.”

(Tips are supposed to cover the gap between the subminimum wage of as little as $2.13 and a jurisdiction’s full minimum wage, or the employer is supposed to make up the difference.)

Elle Wilson, a 25-year-old college student who has worked in restaurants since she was 15, said she quit her lead server job at a hibachi restaurant in the Detroit metro area last June after witnessing a customer punch a colleague who had asked the man to don a mask.

Wilson, who is Black, had already been wary of returning to work when the restaurant reopened in May after being closed for two months because she was scared of catching the coronavirus and transmitting it to her 62-year-old mother with whom she moved back in during the pandemic. But she said her bosses told the staff, mostly women of color, that if they refused to return to work and filed for unemployment, they would not receive any benefits.

So Wilson came back, making less than $3 an hour plus tips — no health benefits. At first, the restaurant offered only takeout and only about a third of customers tipped, so her managers decided it would be more fair to divide them evenly among servers. She said she never made more than $30 a shift in tips.

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Customers regularly walked in unmasked, even though a sign — and the governor — required the protective gear. When Wilson would politely ask customers to wear them, she said at least 1 in 5 would complain or refuse until she called for her manager to intervene.

“People will catch an attitude so quickly for you just doing your job. They would make statements that this is a just ploy for the government to keep us under control. It was just very unsettling. We are not important to them as people," Wilson said. “Finally I said, ‘Why am I putting myself at risk when other people do not care?’ I didn’t want to be a victim to someone else’s actions. I wasn’t getting paid enough to do this.”

Wilson did end up applying for — and eventually receiving — unemployment benefits. She has never made more than $25,000 a year working in restaurants, but knows she will eventually have to get a new job to help her mother pay the bills.

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President Biden has called for raising the federal minimum wage, including for tipped workers, to $15 an hour in his $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, which faces strong Republican opposition. Many Democrats and labor groups have said ending the tipped minimum wage would help reduce inequality between Black workers and their White counterparts. But many Republicans, business groups and some moderate Democrats say doing so could hurt the hospitality industry that is already reeling from the pandemic-induced recession.

The National Restaurant Association, which has lobbied to maintain the subminimum wage, said in response to Biden’s proposal that restaurants would be forced to lay off workers or shut down.

Seven states — California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana, Minnesota and Alaska — already require restaurants to pay the full minimum wage with tips on top. In these states, Black restaurant workers earn an average of $13.90 an hour, compared with an average of $12.31 an hour in the other 43 states with subminimum wages for tipped workers, according to the One Fair Wage report.

The wage gap between Black women and White men working in restaurants is $3.53 in the seven states, compared with $4.78 in the rest of the country, the report said. While Black tipped workers still earn less than workers of other races in the seven states, they are less likely to live in poverty and rely on food stamps because of a higher, more stable base wage.

But Black workers make up only 4 percent of the workforce in those seven states, Jayaraman said, whereas they comprise 15 percent of states that follow the lowest possible federal subminimum wage of $2.13 for tipped workers, nearly all of which are in the South.

“If we want to address racial equity in the United States," she said, “we have to ensure that the states with largest populations of Black people get a full livable minimum wage with tips on top like states with higher percentages of White people.”