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‘Maskual harassment,’ angry customers, and no tips: The life of restaurant workers during COVID-19

A new report on the restaurant industry in the pandemic details sexual comments, poor safety protocols, and cratering wages. Workers and advocates agree on the solution: raising the minimum wage.

‘Maskual harassment,’ angry customers, and no tips: The life of restaurant workers during COVID-19
[Photo: Kwangmoozaa/iStock]
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When Natasha, an employee at a neighborhood bar in Midtown Manhattan, takes customers’ temperatures at the door or politely asks them to pull up masks, she says it’s more common for them to aggressively push back than to comply. When she asked one guest to put on a mask, he told her he was going to wait outside the bar until she’d closed up, and then kill her. At that point, Natasha knew she wouldn’t receive a tip—and also feared for her life.

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Bartenders and restaurant staff such as Natasha are reporting huge spikes in these hostile encounters since the pandemic hit, because a significant portion of their job is now to act as the mask police, enforcing public health measures that are required by many state laws and employers. (We are keeping the names and workplaces of the restaurant workers we spoke to anonymous to protect them from retaliation.) That’s created an even more imbalanced power dynamic between customers and servers, who need the tips from the customers they’re policing to survive. For female workers, even when the comments are of a sexual nature, they can’t necessarily take action without compromising their tips. Workers and advocates say the solution is to raise wages, so that tips serve as a bonus and not a salary, and so they wouldn’t need to worry about fending off insults and harassment or sending away reckless customers for their own safety.

Only seven U.S. states require employers to pay “tipped” service staff a minimum wage before tips, in line with what nontipped workers receive. In every other state, what remains is a two-tiered wage system; in 18 states, tipped workers receive the federal requirement of just $2.13 per hour and experience much higher poverty rates than untipped workers. So they “live at the mercy of customers’ tips,” reads a new report authored by One Fair Wage, an organization committed to raising wages, particularly among tipped workers in the restaurant industry, which employs almost 14 million people, making it one of the biggest—and lowest-paid—industries in the U.S.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated “the complete untenability of such a huge workforce relying on the varying, unstable nature of tips,” says Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage and the director of the Food Labor Research Center at Berkeley. The customer-worker power dynamic has become more pronounced, she says, because workers now rely more heavily on tips from the fewer customers that frequent eateries: 83% of the 1,675 workers surveyed in the report said that their tips have decreased during the pandemic—and 67% say they’ve decreased because of having to enforce public health rules.

That’s true for Anne, who works three restaurant jobs in New York City. At one of the gigs, as a server at a small restaurant, she earns $10 an hour, making her feel “like I’m in high school or something.” Pre-pandemic, she’d make $300 to $400 in tips in a six-hour shift; now, that’d take her 12 hours. What’s more, she’s no longer just a server—she’s also an enforcer of public health rules. “I’m the bad guy. I’m not a bartender—I’m a cop,” she says. “I have to defuse situations constantly.” She faces the most verbal abuse at another of the jobs, at a comfort-food restaurant in Williamsburg, from delivery drivers, who consistently come within six feet of the service window without masks.

She says she regularly complains to DoorDash, including after one driver yelled at her coworker and called her a bitch. After much difficulty getting through to the company and holding on the line, Anne says DoorDash customer service usually tells her they’d make sure that driver wouldn’t be assigned to that restaurant again. (DoorDash responded: “We take the safety of our community extremely seriously. Such disrespectful and abusive behavior is never tolerated on the DoorDash platform, and any behavior that violates this zero tolerance policy is grounds for deactivation.”) “It makes me want to think about getting a different job, when I really love what I do,” she says.

Natasha similarly reports fewer incoming tips. She earns $10 an hour too, sometimes with a sporadic weekly $40-to-$60 bonus from her employer if she doesn’t make that sum in tips; she’s only received that six times since July, and it’s still 10 times less than she would have normally made on tips. Yet, because of pandemic-induced staff cuts, the duties of her role have increased “drastically”: Often managing the bar alone, she makes all the drinks, cooks the hot dogs, waits all the tables, breaks down the bar and power-cleans it at night—and enforces public health measures. For that, she receives threats and curses, but she has to tolerate the hostility because she needs the gratuity. She’s rarely tipped after a confrontation over masks; in one instance, after a man gave her a hard time about having his temperature checked, he left her a “passive-aggressive” tip of $1 on a $60 check.

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Frequently, the insults become gender-based and cross a line into sexual harassment—or outright threats. Natasha is sometimes called a “whore,” which she’d expect from drunken clubbers in her past jobs, “but not from somebody at, like, 6 p.m. on a Tuesday.” Two-fifths of workers reported they’ve noticed an increase in unwanted sexualized comments. According to the report, surveyed workers have received remarks including “Pull that mask down so I can see if I want to take you home later,” “I’ll take your mask off and stick my tongue down your throat,” and “I don’t wear a condom; I sure as hell aren’t going to wear a mask!”

At One Fair Wage, Jayaraman says they’ve coined a term, “maskual harassment,” for the new phenomenon of women being asked to take off their masks before being tipped. “Asking somebody to take off their mask has become like stripping,” she says. “Strip for me, and therefore expose yourself to the virus from my gratification, if you want your tip.”

Europe long ago eliminated tip-dependent wages, a perceived remnant of the class system, in favor of professional salaries. The current culture of service in France, where people go to school to study fine hospitality, is at the heart of what One Fair Wage wants to achieve. “Ultimately, it’s also about establishing the professional skill of this workforce,” she says. “That’s what’s missing in the United States, is the notion of employers paying for the value of the labor of these workers.”

Anne says a fair minimum wage would be more empowering and would allow her to push back more on customer hostility. Tipping should remain as a bonus, Natasha says, “but I do think that we deserve a fair minimum wage on top of that.” She would not have to worry as much about her health as she does right now; she’s concerned about coming into close contact with infected customers, because her father has preexisting conditions. Nearly 70% of the restaurant workers surveyed for the report said that their employers are not consistently following all safety protocols; Natasha’s bar made staff pay for their own Clorox wipes and masks. To add to all this, an estimated 85% of service workers don’t have health insurance.

During the pandemic, the debate over minimum wage “has gone from an issue of race and gender, and economic injustice, to frankly just being life-threatening,” Jayaraman says. Before the pandemic, New York governor Andrew Cuomo raised the subminimum wage in all tipped sectors to $15—except restaurants, after intense lobbying from the industry. But Jayaraman’s group is continuing to pressure the governor to become the eighth state to adopt a fair wage, because it believes that once New York leads the way, others such as Massachusetts and Illinois will follow suit.

The incoming Biden administration has included fair wages for service workers in its platform, and the House passed the Raise the Wage Act, which would eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers by ensuring they’re compensated with a federal minimum wage, which would be raised to $15 an hour by 2025, without eliminating tips. But those ambitions may be stymied by a Republican-controlled Senate. In the meantime, she recommends that well-meaning employers individually transition to a minimum wage, with the organization’s help, and that customers help to push legislators and their favorite restaurants to adopt these measures.

The pandemic has made another fact clear, Jayaraman says. Despite their low pay, restaurant and bar employees are far from disposable; rather, they are essential workers. But “they are the only essential workers who are being asked to remove their protective gear in order to get their income,” she says—that isn’t the case for nurses, teachers, or grocery store clerks. “More than clapping for essential workers, let’s actually make sure they get paid, so they don’t have to kill themselves to work.”