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First Look

Tipped workers push states for higher minimum wage to fight harassment

Workers in the service industry are tapping into the #MeToo movement to raise chronic low wages and end having to tolerate abusive behavior from customers in order to earn tips.

Signs supporting fair wages and treatment are displayed at a discussion about subminimum wage workers that depend on tips for their living in New York on Feb. 20, 2018. Activists are invoking the #MeToo movement in the push for more states to adopt higher minimum wages for tipped workers to fight harassment.
Seth Wenig/AP
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  • Deepti Hajela and David Klepper
    Associated Press

As a waitress, Nadine Morsch was used to having to force an occasional smile for an unpleasant customer. But when a man she was serving made a reference to grabbing at her, she warned him he better not try. And he made her pay.

For the rest of the hour he was in the diner, she says, he was "running me around as much as possible."

Ms. Morsch says she tolerated him, because she needed a good tip.

Experiences like that are one reason activists are invoking the #MeToo movement in the push for more states to adopt higher minimum wages for tipped workers. They say a wage structure that leaves workers dependent on tips often forces them to put up with harassing and abusive behavior from their customers or risk not being paid.

The effort has been around for years but has taken on new momentum lately with the increased reckoning and awareness of sexual misconduct. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has called for public hearings; there's a June ballot question in Washington, D.C., and an effort is underway to get the issue on the statewide ballot in Michigan.

A higher base wage, advocates say, could free tipped workers from the fear of speaking out.

"I wouldn't have needed to feel like my entire life was in his power," said Morsch, who now works at a pub in Rochester, N.Y.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 2 million people working as restaurant servers in the United States, about 70 percent of them women.

Currently, the federal government allows workers who get tipped, such as servers and bartenders, to be paid as little as $2.13 per hour if they make at least $7.25 per hour with tips included.

No state is talking about ending the practice of tipping. But seven states – Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin – mandate that tipped workers be paid at least the same minimum wage as everyone else. Another 26 states require employers to pay tipped workers a wage at least a little higher than the federal minimum.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an advocacy group, says it has found that service employees in the states that require the same minimum wage for everyone, even tipped workers, reported lower levels of harassment than states that did not.

"This is about the power imbalance that women face on the job," said Restaurant Opportunities Centers United co-founder Saru Jayaraman.

Governor Cuomo said late last year that he was open to the possibility of joining the states that have eliminated the subminimum tipped wage.

It's an issue that's come up in New York before and gone nowhere while lawmakers focused on raising the standard minimum wage, currently at $13 in New York City for companies with more than 11 employees and $8.65 for tipped workers. Minimum wages are lower in other parts of the state. Cuomo's administration could make the change itself through an order from the Department of Labor, if the legislature does not act.

Restaurant workers can be sharply divided over whether a higher base wage would help.

Maine created a level minimum wage for tipped workers in a voter referendum in 2017, but almost immediately reversed course. Servers said they were worried customers would stop tipping altogether.

Part-time New York City waitress Sarah March, shares that concern.

"As soon as they hear that I'm already making enough money, I just don't feel like anyone's going to put forth the extra effort to compensate the servers," she said.

Ms. March agreed that sexual harassment on the job is a problem. But a higher minimum wage, she said, will not deter customers engaging in improper behavior.

"They would just not tip and continue to act the way they were inclined," she said.

Some wait staff said if they were less reliant on tips, it might change a workplace culture that is conducive of abuse, and not just from customers.

New York State Restaurant Association President Melissa Autilio Fleischut said a higher minimum wage for tipped workers would only saddle employers with expenses they can't afford and wouldn't help deal with sexual misconduct, either.

Harassment, she said, "cuts across numerous industries and has very little to do with what a woman makes or what a sexually harassed person makes," she said. "I don't see the correlation between the tip credit and sexual harassment."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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