On a hot night last summer, Shelly Ortiz gulped down water, put on two masks and tried to muster the excitement she used to feel heading into work at the Clever Koi, a hip ramen-and-cocktail spot in Phoenix. She loved the banter with co-workers, and the regular customers whose orders she’d memorized. During the pandemic, though, those joys had been subsumed by her anxiety about contracting the virus while still making ends meet.
That night, toward the end of her shift, she was serving a man and his wife. As she was about to hand over their check, he asked if she could remove her masks so he could see “if the bottom half of my face was as cute as the top.” She refused. He declared, angrily, that he’d have to determine the tip by looking at her breasts, instead.
“I went to the back of the restaurant, called my girlfriend, and screamed for a good 15 minutes,” Ortiz, 25, said.
During two enormous crises — a public health emergency and an economic crash — restaurant service workers have found themselves double-exposed. Those who have been able to keep their jobs have felt compelled to keep working, though they know the risks of long hours surrounded by maskless customers. Many say their average tips have declined, while they’ve been saddled with the added work of policing patrons who aren’t social distancing, or as one service worker put it, “babysitting for the greater good.” On top of this, women, who make up more than two-thirds of servers, say they are facing “maskual harassment” — a term coined by the nonprofit organization One Fair Wage to describe demands that servers remove their masks in order to get tipped.
Few industries have been dealt as heavy of a financial blow during the pandemic as the restaurant business, which lost nearly half of its 10 million jobs last March and April. More than 100,000 restaurants across the country have gone out of business since last March. And while many states have reopened indoor dining to some degree, reservation numbers are still down.
The economic challenges have raised existential questions: Could this crisis herald the end of tipping, or a raise in the minimum wage for tipped workers? Depending on subjective gratuities has long been a fraught issue, but rarely has it had the safety consequences that it does now, when workers are struggling to enforce public health compliance from the customers whose tips they depend on. Calls for reform have focused particularly on the 43 states that have a subminimum wage for tipped workers, who can make as little as $2.13 an hour.
Before the pandemic, some restaurant owners were experimenting with no-tipping approaches, like adding gratuity surcharges to their bills, and others, including Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group starting in 2015, raised wages by raising menu prices. The models were easier to try for higher-end restaurants, whose customers weren’t put off by higher prices and who might even be attracted to establishments that played up their worker-friendly policies, according to Michael Lynn, who studies consumer behavior and tipping.
Dozens of other restaurants moved to eliminate tips around the same time as Meyer did. But in the ensuing years, some began to quietly reverse, finding that it was difficult to compete against neighboring restaurants with lower prices and tough to recruit talented staff who could make more money going elsewhere.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said David Stockwell, owner of the Italian bistro Faun in Brooklyn, which opened tip-free in 2016 and then reintroduced tipping in 2018. “We thought it was the rare instance when a good business decision lined up with a good ethical decision. But we realized all the problems that came with the model started rearing their heads in our business.”
In July, Meyer said he was reinstating tips at all his Union Square Hospitality Group businesses because he couldn’t deny his workers extra cash in a time of crisis. He added, though, that he was still committed to the eventual elimination of tipping.
Some restaurant owners, pointing to Meyer’s example, say the pandemic has introduced new obstacles into the no-tipping movement’s path. But others say this moment presents an opportunity to rethink old industry practices.
“Demand is dead right now anyway,” said Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell. “If you’re going to rebuild, let’s rebuild on a sounder model.”
Some service workers say that their experiences of harassment while enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols underscore the need for reforms.
Natasha Van Duser, 27, who tended bar in Manhattan, had never thought to show up to work with pepper spray. That was before last spring, when, she said, a customer dining outside spat on her and threatened to kill her when she asked him to put on a mask before walking to the bathroom; there were others who shouted expletives at her or suggested she take the temperature of their behinds instead of their foreheads.
Once she asked a customer to put on his mask before walking inside to use the bathroom and he grabbed all the items on his table — cups, silverware and a hot dog — and threw them on the ground, then yelled at her to clean it up.
Though Van Duser was mortified, she said she knew she had to quietly sweep away the mess. She needed the tip.
She said she used to make $150 to $300 during an 8-hour shift. In the spring and summer, she said she often made as little as $25. She has since left service work, because she did not feel safe with indoor dining, and has done some contract outreach work for One Fair Wage.
In a recent national study of more than 1,600 workers, conducted by One Fair Wage and the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, more than three-quarters of workers reported “witnessing hostile behavior” from customers who were asked to comply with COVID-19 protocols, more than 40% reported a change in the frequency of unwanted sexual comments during the pandemic and more than 80% reported that their tips had declined.
A national analysis of payments made through the app Square, by Lynn, showed that the average customer is tipping 1% to 2% less on dine-in orders than they did pre-pandemic — but with overall demand for dine-in services down substantially, it’s likely that workers are taking less money home in tips per shift, he said.
In interviews with nearly a dozen service workers, all said they had encountered customers who asked them to take off their masks and show their smiles. Many added that not only do they worry for their health, but they question their sense of self-worth when deciding whether to placate a threatening customer.
“You have a 10-second talk with yourself like, ‘this tab is pretty big, how badly do I want this tip?’” said Francesca Palmisano, 22, a server at a gastropub in Phoenix. “They’re trying to make it sexy like ‘oh yeah are you going to take off your mask for me?’ It makes you question your integrity.”
The impact of the current economic crisis, which some economists have labeled the first “services-led recession,” has been highly concentrated among low-wage workers and especially those in food service. Many white-collar workers have been relatively insulated. An analysis from the Federal Reserve found that unemployment is most likely over 20% for workers in the lowest wage quartile, while in the top wage quartile it has dipped lower than 5%.
“You have one swath of the economy getting absolutely slammed and then a huge swath of workers who haven’t seen a decline in pay,” said Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute. “In a normal recession they’d be helping to keep the economy going but that is not at all the case now.”
Lessons from previous recessions, Shierholz continued, show that without a concerted effort to provide relief to those hard-hit low-wage workers — particularly by eliminating the subminimum wage for tipped workers — any economic recovery will compound existing wage gaps.
Last month, President Joe Biden announced a sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. It includes a provision known as the Raise the Wage bill, which would increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025, affecting some 27 million Americans, and phase out the subminimum wage for tipped workers.
“During this pandemic, the challenges that tipped workers are facing have only gotten worse,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who introduced the legislation, in an email. “We’re hearing truly concerning accounts of women servers being hassled into pulling down their masks so men can judge their looks. This type of treatment puts women’s health at risk.”
The National Restaurant Association, the country’s largest food service trade association, said that the new legislation would pose “an impossible challenge for the restaurant industry,” forcing further closures and layoffs. (The group also said it was addressing the prevalence of “maskual harassment” in other ways, including training to help employees de-escalate conflicts.)
For progressive-minded restaurant owners, the economic crisis makes broader efforts on behalf of workers seem more urgent and nearly impossible: “How do you deal with big philosophical questions when you’re like ‘how do I get enough money in my bank account?’” said Amanda Cohen, who owns the no-tip restaurant Dirt Candy in New York City.
At the same time, she added, the crisis has also magnified the risks in giving patrons so much power over their servers’ work lives through gratuity: “You’re forcing your workers to depend on the customers to be the human resources department.”
And when the customers serve as a business’ HR, it can feel to workers as if there’s little recourse for mistreatment, maskual or otherwise.
Ortiz, in Phoenix, quit her job as a server after the summer. She didn’t feel that she could properly police her unruly customers.
She knew for her safety, and that of her fellow servers, she had to get customers to keep their masks on. But she was also worried about her co-workers in a different way: She didn’t want to shrink the tip pool.
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