A few weeks ago, we reviewed some new research on how the tipped minimum wage may make servers in restaurants more vulnerable to sexual harassment from patrons, and asked readers for their opinions.
We got dozens of interesting responses. Here are a few of them, on the question of whether the culture of tipping made customer behavior worse.
Anonymous, 22, Middlesex County, N.J.
“Yes absolutely. [Tips] prevented me from standing up for myself because I had to weigh the pros and cons of saying something based upon whether I thought my tips would be affected. Because my paycheck was never more than $3, it was either suck it up, let your dignity take a back seat and make money, or demand respect, preserve your dignity and lose income.”
Karen Lehman, 59, works in a Los Angeles college bookstore. Waitressed and tended bar in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, London and Boston.
“Yes, and no; we definitely spoke amongst ourselves about the ‘bad’ customers. I once told a chef what a male customer had said to me, and he went out to the table with his biggest knife, ostensibly to ask them how their food was, but leaned over the man who had made the rude suggestion to me. The table acted like little lambs the rest of their meal, but oh yeah, they ‘stiffed’ me. As for speaking to management? Often the men who managed these places were just as rude to their female employees.
“Also, tolerating drunken men and their come-ons inevitably led to larger tips — this is why, for a woman, cocktail waitressing could be way more profitable than dining room.”
Ambra Tieszen, 21, student living in Syracuse, N.Y. Waitressed in Dallas, Tex.
“It’s not only a degrading job because your living wage depends on the customer always being right, but it also makes it difficult to exert the same agency you would in a non-tipping job. If customers at my retail job were harassing me, I would just walk away and tell my boss. Or I would let them know that I was uncomfortable and ask them to stop. They didn’t control my pay at the end of the day.”
Lindsay Blackwell, 25, PhD student at the University of Michigan, Livonia, Mich.
“I’ve experienced sexual harassment in tipped positions as well as in minimum wage catering jobs.
“On more than one occasion in the restaurant industry, I physically resisted the advances of a patron only to be reprimanded by my employers for being ‘rude’ to a paying customer. The loss of one tip never occurred to me as more than a passing inconvenience; the loss of my job, though, was far too real a risk. I personally do not believe that sexual harassment will end in the restaurant industry — or in ANY industry — until employers are held accountable for the safety and well-being of their employees.”
Anonymous, 22, student, Nebraska. Waitressed in Tulsa, Okla.
“Yes, I lived in a state where servers make $2.13 an hour. You have to fight for good tables, charm every customer and pray they know that tipping is essential. We had a series of regulars in our restaurant who were known non-tippers, and it’s unnerving to have people demand this and that, offer you three coupons when you know we can only accept one, and then leave you nothing for the 45 minutes you’ve worried about them.”
Penni Barnett, 55 , Silver Spring, Md. Vice president, marketing communications, Burke & Herbert Bank. Waitressed in Philadelphia in the 1970s.
“Tipping culture encourages all kinds of abusive power plays by customers. I was never sexually harassed by a customer, but I certainly experienced various rude, entitled, unreasonably demanding customers of all stripes. Groups of women were the hardest to please, and invariably were the worst tippers, by the way. Tipping culture by its very nature fosters a situation where the server is forced to put up with bad behavior, for fear of losing money. Customers know it and take advantage.”
Rachel Cheeseman, 24, marketing. Currently in Arizona, served in Indiana.
“I’m not sure the harassment of people in service positions boils down exclusively to tipping. That seems a bit reductive, but it’s a chickens vs. eggs argument. I see tipping as an outgrowth of a culture that sees servers as, well, servants. I think the notion that customers get to act however they want because we’re there to make their stay pleasant translates to ‘You’re here to please me’ in their minds. I don’t think that people decline to speak out because of a fear of retaliation, but of feelings of resignation and a perception of a lack of recourse, which is pretty true independent of a wage structure.
“I believe that if I’d told my managers at any of the locations what I was experiencing, they would have felt tremendous sympathy. All of my managers had wives and/or children, and they weren’t themselves misogynists. But if I’d reported what happened on any given day, what could they do? Blacklist the customer because he’s creepy? Make his restaurant the frontlines of a charge to upend campus culture as it has existed for decades? In my own shoes, I saw myself as a server in a restaurant, and dealing with awkward sexual conversations came with the territory as much as it does for a grade 10 health teacher, it’s just the adults acting like children instead of the other way around.”
Mike Kuhn, 45, teacher, St. Louis, Mo. Served in St. Louis.
“Of course it does. Servers know the lowest life form is the guy who goes for the easy mark: his waitress. She waits on his needs, brings him sustenance and drink, laughs at his terrible jokes and smiles in spite of herself. She’s trapped, and he knows it, pushing for personal information or even a date. I also know of many great managers and owners who will not allow their staff to be harassed, and will call customers out when appropriate. The restaurant business is the oddest assortment of personalities, colliding with cultural norms and human transgressions. It is also an amazing fabric stitched together with unspoken agreements and natural consequences, a table linen stained and cleaned, night after night.”
Anonymous, 32, owns a pet-sitting business in Washington, D.C. Waitressed in College Park, Md., and was a greeter in Bethesda, Md.
“Yes. I waited tables through college, and experienced inappropriate touching (in a crowded bar that catered to college-age men) as well as the suggestion by patrons that I ‘owed’ them something if they ‘overtipped’ me. I also experienced inappropriate comments about my body by male restaurant managers. I personally saw two staff members fired over a sexual harassment incident in which one of the staff members (a male server) defended another staff member (a female server) after men at one of her tables were talking loudly about sexual acts they would like to engage in with her. There was no physical altercation, the male server only spoke to the patrons. The men complained to management and that was it for the two servers.”