According to Greek mythology, the first waitress was named Hebe, the youngest and least well known daughter of Hera and Zeus. Hebe worked as the cupbearer to the gods until one day she tripped, pulling her dress away, and exposing her chest to the assembled Olympians. She was fired, replaced by a man, and largely forgotten until the 1800’s when she became an unexpectedly popular subject of portraiture. Commissioning a painting of yourself done up as Hebe — who was often presented with one breast bared — was essentially the seventeenth century’s version to the thirst trap.
The image of the female service worker as the physical manifestation of her customers’ appetites is pretty unshakable. “The Barmaid seems to be a kind of moral salamander,” wrote J. Stirling Coyne in an 1849 character sketch, “living unharmed in the midst of the amorous furnace in which destiny has placed her.” Sociologist Frances Donovan’s (very suspect) 1920 study lamented the waitresses’ life of “semi-prostitution.” Dorothy Sue Cobble, author of Dishing it Out: Waitresses and their Unions, wrote that as the twentieth century progressed and a sort of absurd, forced friendliness became the norm at even the dingiest of restaurants, the employee/client relationship grew murkier. “Both invisibility and ‘snappy repartee’ were now discouraged,” wrote Cobble. “Maintaining one’s dignity became increasingly difficult.”
Ninety percent of women in service say they’ve been sexually harassed and no one is entirely sure how to address that. OpenTable, the online reservation service, announced that they would be rolling out a very unconvincing initiative called Open Kitchen, where restaurants could self-identify (without oversight) as a harassment-free workspace and earn a badge. In the wake of allegations against celebrity chef John Besh, a group of restaurant workers in New Orleans founded Medusa, a collective meant to educate workers on sexual harassment. San Francisco restaurant The Perennial collaborated with graphic designers to create a poster illustrating how to report assault or harassment. The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), an advocacy group and one of the most prominent members of the growing alt-labor movement, has pushed what isn’t exactly a solution, but is at least a way to alleviate harm: eliminate the tipped minimum wage.
Tipped workers are paid a subminimum wage — right now it’s $2.13 federally versus a $7.25 untipped minimum wage — with the agreement that employers will make up the difference at the end of the month should an employee’s tips fail to hit or surpass the minimum wage. Enforcement of this agreement, commonly referred to as “tip credit,” is nearly nonexistent, however, and food service employees are twice as likely as the average American to fall beneath the poverty line. “It requires a mostly female workforce to tolerate all kinds of inappropriate customer behavior in order to feed their families,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the ROC. Two thirds of tipped workers restaurant workers in New York State are women.
“Money is power,” said Brooklyn-based waitress Marisa Licandro. “If the customer is paying my wage, they have power over me. And customers having power over you means that you can’t speak against them when they try to grab you. I don’t want to be forced to choose between silence and complacency and [not] having money.” Seven states already require employers to pay employees the full minimum wage before tips, but the national movement for a single minimum wage has picked up steam drastically since #MeToo began and the public eye settled on equity in the workplace.
In December, Governor Cuomo agreed to hold a series of seven hearings around New York State on the possibility of eliminating the subminimum wage. Industry groups immediately launched a widespread misinformation campaign. The National Restaurant Association, often referred to by labor groups as “the other NRA,” represents some of the largest employers in the country and has lobbied relentlessly against raising the minimum wage, quashing workers’ rights, and scuttling basic consumer protections. For years they’ve contracted the services of Rick Berman — a public relations guy nicknamed “Dr. Evil” who just so happens to be the estranged father of The Silver Jews’ David Berman. (“Though vicious he is a doltish thinker,” the younger Berman wrote of him in 2009.) Berman the elder is famous for creating fake advocacy groups and badly designed websites that lobby for his clients’ interests. My favorite is FishScam.com, which recently expired but is archived here and will try to convince you that mercury poisoning isn’t real. Since January, Berman’s MinimumWage.com and his think tank, the Employment Policies Institute, have both been focused entirely on fear-mongering around the elimination of the tip credit. The most common argument is that if the public knows tipped employees are making minimum wage they will tip less. There’s no evidence this is the case though. A study ROC released in February showed that in states without a tip credit earnings were actually higher, $11.44 versus $9.57 in states with a subminimum wage.
The most visible opposition to eliminating the subminimum wage has come from two groups called Save NY Tips Coalition and Restaurant Workers of America (RWA) who travel to every public hearing in matching “Tip Credit Supporter” shirts to testify. While Save NY Tips Coalition is funded by the New York State Restaurant Association, RWA is more opaque. As a 501(c)4 their funding isn’t publicly available, but they claim to be a group of restaurant workers who organized spontaneously to lobby against their own interests. Joshua Chaisson, their founder and president, went so far as to write an op-ed on “the progressive case for Trump’s tip pooling rule” — a proposed regulation tweak which would have allowed restaurant owners to pocket their employees’ tips and effectively legalized wage theft.
On Friday the Labor Department held the fifth of seven hearings at the Legislative Office Building in Albany. It played out largely like a libertarian fever dream — “We didn’t ask for this raise and we don’t want it,” was the party line for the pro-tip credit contingent. Llona Hogan, a server at Hattie’s Restaurant in Saratoga, called the prospect of being paid minimum wage “a government handout.” The debate was starkly divided along racial and economic lines — those in support of keeping the subminimum wage were white, almost without exception, and generally restaurant owners or servers. One the biggest fears was the looming threat of automation. John Buntich, operations director at Ninety Nine Restaurant and Pub held up a picture of the self service kiosks at the Gramercy Park McDonald’s as a threat to the audience. “People are going to be replaced with technology,” he said.
Anyone who makes over $30 a month in tips can legally be paid as a tipped employee and not every tipped employee works in a high-end restaurant. Car wash workers, generally immigrants whose jobs are entirely dependent on the weather, are put in a particularly vulnerable position. Margarito Perez, a car wash employee from Brooklyn, sounded near tears at the hearing. “The car wash industry is a very unique industry, it really needs regulation,” he said. “We’re not even making twenty hours this week because of [the rain].”
To Jayaraman, that’s the point of all of ROC’s organizing. “Professionalizing the industry means lifting the floor and building the ladder. Lifting the floor so that people get a minimum wage and then building a career ladder so that everybody in the industry can move up.” The threat of automation is there, but keeping people in poverty isn’t a decent alternative. Automation is coming regardless — Will Robots Take My Job puts waiters and waitresses at a 94% probability of automation. Yet still, when The Intercept got a hold of a recent internal poll conducted by NRA, it showed 71% of consumers supported raising the minimum wage — even if it meant prices would rise alongside it.
“They know we’re winning,” said Jayaraman.