The pandemic created new problems for tipped restaurant workers, many of them young people, and sometimes those new problems exacerbated existing ones, like harassment by customers.
Shelly Ortiz, 25, who worked at a ramen noodle and cocktail restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona, describes customers who demanded last summer that she pull her face mask down so they could see her face and decide how much to tip her.
“I’m risking my life so you can have a margarita right now, and the harassment was unbearable,” she recalls.
Many restaurant servers—especially the women—say that during the pandemic, customers frequently asked them to take their masks off. They say it made them worry about their health and also question their sense of self-worth in debating whether to placate the customer.
“You have a 10-second talk with yourself like, ‘This tab is pretty big, how badly do I want this tip?’” says Francesca Palmisano, 22, a server at a Phoenix restaurant. She adds, “It makes you question your integrity.”
Yamila Ruiz of One Fair Wage, a group pushing to eliminate the tipped minimum wage, says restaurant workers were put in the position of having to police their customers as if they were public health marshals.
“But at the same time,” she says, “they rely on those same people for tips. As a result, their wages suffered.”
The pandemic has also highlighted the inherent public health problem created by forcing workers to rely on tips.
“Pre-pandemic, I can’t count how many times I’ve gone to work sick,” says Hayden Smith, a server at an upscale restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee. “You don’t have the opportunity to work from home. If you miss your Saturday shift, you’re not guaranteed to make that money on a Tuesday.”
Many advocacy groups are calling for the elimination of the tipped minimum wage. They say tipped workers should earn the same minimum wage as other workers, plus whatever tips customers choose to give them.
Ramirez sees the elimination of the tipped minimum wage as a gender equity issue because 70 percent of today’s tipped workers are women.
“Women are forced to tolerate unwelcome and inappropriate behavior from customers because they’re dependent on those tips,” she says.