Gratuity not included: Workers who depend on tips report frequent harassment

Longtime server Resa James, 24, left the food service industry convinced it is still “a man’s world.” (Jamie Verwys/Aztec Press)



Resa James, 24, has worked in the food service industry since she was 15 years old. Her first job was at a veteran’s hall.

“I would serve them meals when they were playing bingo, and get my ass grabbed,” she said.

Though she laughed, making light of the behavior considering the age of her customers, the unwanted attention continued through her next nine years as a server.

Customers who groped, managers who blocked promotions and co-workers who exhibited inappropriate behavior left James providing service with a smile through gritted teeth.

She encountered sexual harassment directed towards female employees. At times, customers were the initiators but male co-workers also contributed.

On top of learning the specific requirements for a job, she found herself adjusting small details to avoid potential discomfort from the males around her.

She quickly learned that bending over would spur lewd comments.

“I literally found a way to bend over so that doesn’t happen to me anymore,” she said. “I crouch down. I don’t ever bend over and it’s so sad.”

High incidences of harassment

James’ experience contains common threads with new findings about women who work as servers, bartenders, bussers and hostesses.

An in-depth report released Oct. 7 by the Restaurant Opportunities Center and Forward Together uncovered high incidences of sexual harassment in the food service industry.

“The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry” called the restaurant industry “the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the U.S.”

In a business of hospitality, how much must an employee endure to ensure a customer’s experience is a good one? For those who rely on tips, pleasing the guest can mean the difference between a good paycheck and minimum wage.

Restaurant workers, particularly females who depend on tips, are in a “uniquely vulnerable position,” according to the study.

Local bartender Katelyn Roberts often experiences unwanted attention from male customers.

“We get a lot of regulars at the bar and they are usually older,” she said. “They often say very disgusting things to me, but the cool regulars do keep them in check.”

She’s observed a change of tone, attitude and level of respect when the server is male.

“Obviously, young, cute girls who appear nonthreatening are hired for a reason,” she said.

Server Samuel Doane agreed women face challenges that male servers do not. Though customer abuse is part of the job, he said men receive it less frequently.

“I have experienced it, but the abuse doesn’t last long,” he said. “It helps to be a 6-foot male with a relatively deep voice.”

Doane has seen women suffer abuse from customers, managers and co-workers.

“Female servers are surrounded by men that do not understand the concept of accommodation,” he said. “It’s like, ‘She laughed at my joke. Clearly she wants to have sex with me.’”

Lines of management

Success can be elusive in the restaurant industry.

A study by the National Restaurant Association found that 30 percent of new restaurants fail the first year. With fluctuating business costs, the state of the economy and changing trends, it is critical to bring the customers back.

How does management keep their employees safe without losing customers?

One Pima Community College student, who asked to remain anonymous, has worked for two years at multiple locations as a manager for a national fast food chain. He’s found that conflict resolution for employees can be challenging.

“It’s hard because a lot of times, unless somebody says something, you don’t know it’s happening,” he said. “You can’t say anything until they yell ‘help.’”

The bulk of complaints he faces are in the form of irate, sometimes aggressive, sometimes inappropriate, behavior by customers.

He admitted to a stigma that links a lack of intelligence to fast food employees.

“There are people that treat us like we’re stupid because it’s fast food,” he said. “You get an ‘F’ on your test and the joke is, ‘Hey, do you want fries with that?’”

Employees, both male and female, experience put-downs from patrons.

“I have been called a couple of things and then refused people service,” he said.

“There’s a fine line. You want the customer to stay, but you have to protect employees. I draw the line when customers start being verbally abusive.”

While he is confident that safety measures in place are effective, there is no protection from negative customer experiences.

“Some people already have this expectation that something is going to go wrong,” he said. “This is true at any restaurant, sit-down or fast food.”

At his store, verbal abuse from customers is more common than sexual harassment between co-workers. The franchise has rules in place to govern employee dating.

“If people are in a position of authority over this person, you technically aren’t allowed to date them,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it always happens.”

Lewd jokes behind closed doors

“The Glass Floor” report said unwanted sexual attention from management and customers is common, but the highest incidence of sexual harassment comes from co-workers.

Just 21 percent of women and 29 percent of men surveyed said they had never faced sexual harassment from fellow employees.

The men and women interviewed for this story speculated that harassment from within the work place had its roots in ego, a lack of disciplinary action and a macho attitude.

“The problems come between coworkers in the back of house because many kitchens are male-dominated, very aggressive and unnecessarily macho,” Roberts said. “Cooking is really cool right now, so I think there’s a lot of ego.”

James has witnessed male employees critiquing the bodies of their female coworkers.

“It’s just really disappointing,” she said. “It’s becoming more equal slowly, but it is a man’s world still.”

Reluctant managers 

Doane blames lack of managerial intervention for some of the harassment.

“Management is always seeking to appease its customers, so most complaints made by servers who are harassed are unaddressed, for fear of losing business,” he said. “You see this mainly in struggling restaurants.”

“Cooks and chefs are given lots of leeway because of the high stress of the job and the essential nature of their positions,” Doane added.

“It’s expensive to train a cook, so they are rarely disciplined so long as they are not costing the business money,” he said.

Cerbi Riss, 29, has worked since the age of 15 as a busser, hostess, server and bartender.

She likes her current hotel job and has rarely experienced sexual harassment, but believes managers can improve the way they deal with employee complaints.

“It usually doesn’t get handled,” she said. “Our managers don’t like confrontation that much. They are starting to get a little bit better.”

“The Glass Floor” report also found that “sexual harassment policies and training are widely unenforced or absent.”

When James worked at a hotel, management acted only when prompted by serious repercussions.

“It never happens, unless someone is like, ‘I’m going to sue you,’” she said. “That’s the only time they take care of it.”

Outdated ideas on tipping

Employees who work for tips are in a particularly difficult position because their pay depends on what a guest decides to pay.

Riss said she usually makes $100-$150 a shift but the tips fluctuate and depend on a number of factors.

“People either make it or break it,” she said. “If you have really good people, your night can just be awesome, just making a difference in their experience, helping them enjoy everything.”

Other customers will never be satisfied.

“There are people that no matter what you do, it will go wrong,” she said. “Some will always find something to complain about, which can be pretty bad.”

Riss recalled one instance when two men argued about the 18 percent gratuity included in their bill. “They must have gone on for half an hour,” she said.

Possible reasons for lower tips include a poor economy, foreign customers who are unfamiliar with the tipping system and outdated or uninformed concepts of tipping, Riss said.

James sees the current system of tipping as flawed and cites generational ideas as an issue.

“No offense, I love old people, but their ideas of the tipping system are very much stuck in the 1950s,” she said. “They could be paying for a $100 meal, but they are only going to tip us 10 percent because that’s what they think is appropriate.”

Bartender Roberts feels the amount of money she makes every night is usually fair, but she has seen customers toy with her tips.

“Some people grab tips on the bar and try to tip with that,” she said. “Others think they should only tip per order, even if that order included seven cocktails, and that’s a little disheartening, but it usually evens out with good tippers.”

Though people can be selective with tips, Roberts has rarely had an issue with the system.

“I treat customers well and make sure they are satisfied with the product before paying and I think most of them notice that,” she said.

Gender plays a role

The role gender plays in a tipping environment seems to be influenced greatly by location and atmosphere. A sports bar and the crowd it attracts is a far different environment then a fine dining restaurant.

“If you’re working at a sports bar, you’re working longer hours but you can make pretty good money,” Riss said. “Fine dining is the other end. It’s slower paced and detailed, and you will make good money there too.”

Spending depends on the economy, she added. “When the economy is not doing so well, people don’t want to go buy a couple $100 bottles of wine.”

Riss thinks the type of restaurant is the key factor in determining whether men or women earn more.

“I think in a bar atmosphere, women would make more,” she said. “In regular restaurant service it’s pretty even, obviously depending on their service level.”

Doane also thinks quality of service is ultimately what will earn a tip, with both men and women having ample earning potential.

“Charismatic guys who know about sports and cute gals who flirt make more than everyone else,” he said. “Although, when you get into fine dining, the professionalism and food knowledge starts to shine through.”

Roberts sees location as a major factor in promotions for women.

“If I were working at a cocktail bar, and not a female-owned dive bar, I’d say it’d be next to impossible to get a promotion as a bartender,” she said. “I rarely see female bartenders. It’s definitely a boy’s club in Tucson.”

So you want to be a server

Not every food service employee experiences sexual harassment, but both male and female employees interviewed said they have been subjected to verbal abuse at some point.

“Now, my customer service backbone is stronger and much more genuine,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t shock me as much, but it still bothers me.”

She called herself a good bartender who gives good company. “Do you really want to ruin that and have me completely ignore you because you wanted to make things weird?”

The fast food manager hopes customers will try to be nice and respectful.

“We’re people too,” he said. “It will affect your service if you’re an asshole. You’re probably getting bad customer service because you’re a bad customer.”

Riss believes that most people working in the food industry enjoy what they do.

“I’d rather be doing this than sit at a desk,” she said. “I don’t know if I could without falling asleep.”

She likes fluctuating schedules and the people she comes across.

“It’s nice because it’s always different and I’ve gotten used to that,” she said.

James left the restaurant business with a sense that it’s still very much a man’s world. She advises women who are entering the food business to be strong.

“Don’t let anyone talk down to you and establish your dominance really early,” she said. “Let your boss know that you are not a weak person. They already think you are because you’re a female.”

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