90 Percent of Tipped Restaurant Workers Harassed on the Job: "One Fair Wage" to Help End Sexual Harassment

News & Politics

Editor's note: The following is a transcript from Democracy Now! 

A new report finds up to 90 percent of women working restaurant jobs that depend on tips have experienced workplace sexual harassment. More than 70 percent of tipped workers are women, and female restaurant workers are especially vulnerable to harassment in states where tipped workers earn a federal minimum wage of $2.13 per hour. Today, just seven states require employers pay a regular minimum wage before tips. We speak with Saru Jayaraman, co-director and co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which has released a new report, "The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry." Jayaraman is director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of "Behind the Kitchen Door." We also speak with restaurant worker, Ashley Ogogor, and with former waitress, Eve Ensler, the award-winning playwright and author of The Vagina Monologues. She helped create V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women and girls, and the One Billion Rising campaign, which is now in its third year.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with a look at a newreport that finds up to 90 percent of women working restaurant jobs that depend on tips have experienced workplace sexual harassment. Over 70 percent of tipped workers are women, and female restaurant workers are especially vulnerable to harassment in states where tipped workers earn a federal minimum wage of $2.13 per hour. The federal minimum for non-tipped workers is $7.25. The new report is called "The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry." It was released by the nonprofit workers’ advocacy group, Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which also produced this video featuring a restaurant server named Aisha Thurman.

AISHA THURMAN: Most of the restaurant owners are men. So, on that end, I’m already, you know, losing. It seems like men, they just say whatever they want. And they think, you know, my body is for them to enjoy, to look at, touch, say what they want. They think if they throw me a couple dollars in the form of a tip, it’s OK.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, just seven states require employers pay a regular minimum wage before tips; they’re California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Minnesota, Nevada and Montana. Well, on Tuesday, living-wage activists will draw attention to efforts that would expand this number. They’re holding a national day of action called "Not on the Menu: Rally Against Sexual Harassment." Here in New York, they’ll rally at City Hall to call on lawmakers to support "One Fair Wage" and end what they call "legalized pay discrimination against tipped workers."

For more, we’re joined by a number of guests. In Berkeley, California, Saru Jayaraman is with us, co-director and co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center, or ROC United, which released the new report, "The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry." She directs UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center and is the author of Behind the Kitchen Door.

Here in New York, we’re joined by Ashley Ogogor, a member ofROC United who’s a restaurant worker in New York and has worked as a waitress in Texas and Pennsylvania.

And we’re joined by another former waitress, Eve Ensler, the award-winning playwright and author ofThe Vagina Monologues. She helped create V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women and girls, and the One Billion Rising campaign, which is now in its third year. Eve worked for nine years as a tip-dependent bartender and waitress in New York.

Still with us from Seattle, Kshama Sawant, a Socialist city councilmember who has helped win the $15-an-hour minimum wage for all workers in Seattle.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Saru, let’s go to you first at the University of California, Berkeley. Talk about what you found in your report.

SARU JAYARAMAN: Thanks for having me, Amy. So, first of all, a little bit of explanation about this system, because it really is the basis for the report. So, the restaurant industry is the second-largest and fastest-growing sector of the U.S. economy—it’s over 10 million workers—and one of the largest employers of women in the United States. Unfortunately, it happens to be the absolute lowest-paying employer in the United States. And the real reason for that is the power of the National Restaurant Association, which we call "the other NRA," which has been named the 10th most powerful lobbying group in Congress and which, back in 1996, under the leadership of Herman Cain, who later tried to run for president, struck a deal with Congress saying that they wouldn’t oppose a very modest increase in the overall minimum wage as long as the minimum wage for workers who earn tips stayed frozen forever, and so the wage has been stuck at $2.13 an hour for the last 23 years at the federal level. And that same deal has been struck over and over and over again for the last several decades in 43 states in the United States.

Now, the Restaurant Association has gotten away with this extraordinary exemption, basically saying, "We should be the only industry on Earth that shouldn’t have to pay our own workers’ wages, because you, the customer, should pay our workers’ wages for us." They’ve gotten away with this extraordinary exemption by painting the picture of a guy who works at a fancy, fine-dining restaurant in Manhattan, who earns $18 an hour in tips, who’s doing just fine, when in fact 70 percent of tipped workers in America are women who largely work at restaurants like IHOP and Applebee’s and Olive Garden and Red Lobster, who suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce and use food stamps at double the rate.

And what the research has shown is that this actually isn’t just about living the most economically precarious life imaginable, right? If you live off of tips, which you do if you live in a state that pays as little as $2 or $3 or $4 an hour, you’re living completely off your tips. You never know how much your income is going to bring in day after day. But even worse, what the research has shown is that this makes you even more vulnerable to the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the United States. The restaurant industry is in fact the single largest source of sexual harassment complaints to the EEOC, and this is exacerbated by the fact that women living off of tips must tolerate whatever a customer might do to them, however they may touch them or treat them or talk to them, because the customer is always right, because the customer pays their bills rather than their employer. And the research shows that in fact women are twice as likely to experience this sexual harassment from customers, also from co-workers and management, in states that pay as little as $2.13 than they are in states that provide the same minimum wage to tipped and nontipped workers, like California. And even worse, even worse, you know, you’re talking about six million women in America who must tolerate this every day of their lives to feed their families, because these are largely mothers, single mothers, right?

Beyond that, you’ve got millions more young women who this is their first job in high school, college or graduate school. And this is how we are teaching young women in America what is tolerable and acceptable in the workplace, so much so that we’ve now been approached by literally thousands of women from across America saying, you know, "I was a tipped worker in college. I now am a corporate executive or a union organizer. I’ve been sexually harassed recently on the job, but I didn’t do anything about it because it was never as bad as it was when I was a young woman working in restaurants."

AMY GOODMAN: Eve Ensler, how did you get involved with this campaign?

EVE ENSLER: Well, last year, during One Billion Rising for Justice, we had a "State of Female Justice" panel where we brought together many women who were thinking about the intersection of injustices. And Saru was on the panel talking about economic injustice and the relationship to sexual violence. And I think at that point we realized that this movement and these movements needed to join forces. And I’m very happy that One Billion Rising Revolution, which is our third year, is in collaboration, in solidarity with ROC and the restaurant workers, because I think not only are there so many women who are employed in the restaurant industry who are suffering from wages that are substandard, but this intersection of sexual violence being based on that substandard wage and being based on the fact that waitresses depend on the largesse and the kindness of strangers rather than having real wages based on really difficult work that they deserve. And I think one of the great things about this collaboration is the understanding that we cannot end sexual violence against women, unless we look at the intersection of economic violence. And I think the work that ROC is doing is some of the best work I’ve seen in bringing not only waitresses and restaurant workers together, but uniting our issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, Ashley Ogogor, your own experience as a waitress here in New York and other places?

ASHLEY OGOGOR: I can. First of all, I’d like to say thank you for having me. I’m really excited. And I have the opportunity to work with ROC. I’m a member of ROC-New York as well as ROC United. ROCNew York is—

AMY GOODMAN: Restaurant [Opportunities Center].

ASHLEY OGOGOR: Yeah, exactly. ROC-New York is the local chapter here. And my prior experience working in Texas at $2.13 an hour, you know, I was really shocked. I didn’t understand, you know, when I first went in; it was my first time. And I would go around and ask my co-workers, like, "How are you able to pay your bills?" Because I was really nervous. Like, how is this going to work? And it was very difficult. I received, you know, unwanted—

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s be clear, $2.13 times eight, so you’re making in the range of $18, $20 a day, if you weren’t getting tipped.

ASHLEY OGOGOR: If I’m not getting tipped.

AMY GOODMAN: But the tips are the key.


AMY GOODMAN: So how do you feel it contributes to the issue of sexual harassment?

ASHLEY OGOGOR: There’s a lot of unwanted comments that I received. And, I mean, it’s just, like they said, the customer is always right. So, you don’t want to make them upset. You learn to just ignore it. I’ve on occasion gone to a manager and told them, you know, "This guest is being a little bit difficult, and I’m not sure how to handle it." And they ask me, "Well, what are they saying?" Just, you know, comments about how pretty I am, and, you know, I’ve had guests ask me out on dates. And they said, "You know, you should—it’s OK, you know? You should be fine. They’re giving you a compliment. You know, just take care of the guest." And it’s just like you have to learn how to just ignore it. You know, there’s a lot of—it’s really big in this industry, and I really feel like it should be done away with, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: You went to the National Labor Relations Board with your concerns?

ASHLEY OGOGOR: I did. I did. And I will be going back on the 20th of October, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your complaint to them?

ASHLEY OGOGOR: My complaint is that there should just—there should be one fair wage. There should not be a sub-minimum wage. I mean, $2.13 an hour, $5 an hour is unheard of, especially here in New York. You know, I was blown away by the cost of living here in New York. And $5 an hour is not going to—it’s not going to cut it at all.

AMY GOODMAN: The National Restaurant Association, or, as Saru just called it, the other NRA, says on its website, quote, "Tip-earning employees can be among a restaurant’s highest earners. ... Tip-credit law recognizes that employers offer employees the opportunity to receive gratuities. It also provides strong protections to ensure that tipped employees never earn less than the applicable minimum wage." Saru, your response to that, that they can’t earn less than the minimum wage?

SARU JAYARAMAN: Yeah. Well, I think you just have to look at government data, which shows that the median wage for tipped workers in the United States, including tips, hovers at just about $8 an hour. As I said, 70 percent of these workers are women. They suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce and use food stamps at double the rate. The U.S. Department of Labor has reported that there’s an 83 percent violation rate with regard to employers actually ensuring that tips make up the difference between the sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour—

AMY GOODMAN: We just have—

SARU JAYARAMAN: —and the regular minimum wage.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 10 seconds to go.

SARU JAYARAMAN: But the key issue—oh.

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds to go, and I wanted to go back to Eve about the events that are taking place, for example, tomorrow here in New York.

EVE ENSLER: Yes, tomorrow, City Hall, 11:00, we will be joining forces with ROC and One Billion Rising. And I think it’s going to be a major event, and we’re inviting everybody to come out and join us and stand up for restaurant workers and also stand up for women. You know, restaurant work teaches women. It’s an entry-point job. It teaches. It’s like a hazing process.

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

EVE ENSLER: It teaches women what work will be like for the rest of your life. We don’t want women to learn that work will be about sexual abuse, about wages that are not what you deserve. So come and join us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, Eve Ensler, the Tony Award-winning playwright; Saru Jayaraman; and thank you so much to Ashley Ogogor.

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