Tipping and sexual harassment during the pandemic

I have railed before against the practice of tipping because it seems like a relic of a feudal age and reinforces the power differential between the tipper and the tippee. In the US, restaurant and other hospitality workers can be paid far less than the minimum wage, as low as $2.13 per hour, using the argument that they augment that absurd wage with tips. I have argued that it would be better to pay them a living wage, pass the cost on to the customer through higher prices, and abolish tipping altogether. But some customers want to retain tipping for the very reason that I dislike it, because it gives them power over the person serving them, enabling them to reward and punish.

On NPR this morning, they discussed a new report that says that hostility towards hospitality workers and sexual harassment of them has increased during the pandemic as the number of customers has decreased and the dependency on tips from the remaining customers has increased. Some tippers, aware of their increased power, are demanding that servers remove their masks so that their faces can be seen before they will give a tip.

The title of the report, “Take off your mask so I know how much to tip you,” is a reference to one of several disturbing comments women workers say they’ve been hearing from patrons.

“Women across the country who work in restaurants are being asked to remove their masks so that male customers can judge their looks and therefore their tips on that basis,” Jayaraman said.

In what Jayaraman terms “maskual harassment,” the phenomenon’s underlying power imbalance is no different than sexual harassment, she said, when workers are reliant on the customer’s tips.

Demanding a service worker to take their mask off, she argued, is asking them to “subject herself to the virus and the possibility of death — for the sexual pleasure of customers, all because she doesn’t get paid a minimum wage.”

In the audio of the interview, they report that seven states that require servers be paid a living wage report half the amount of sexual harassment. They also explain that Herman Cain (who attended a Trump rally in Kansas without wearing a mask and soon after died of covid-19), nearly thirty years ago when he was the head of the National Restaurant Association, made a deal with president Bill Clinton and Congress that in return for not opposing raising the minimum wage for other workers, the sub-minimum wage for servers would be frozen at $2.13 per hour for ever.

It is disgraceful.


  1. John Morales says

    In your milieu, Marcus, a prominent sign advising that there is no “tipping”, instead the wait-staff as well as other employees are paid a living wage and that this cost is already factored into the menu would be most informative.

    Not my milieu, but from what I read, I think at least some people would welcome knowing that what the menu price shows is what the customer pays.

    And, you know, they could still tip — but it would actually be a volitional gratuity, not a social/ethical obligation.

  2. mikey says

    Another confounding factor is that a lot, maybe a majority, of bartenders and servers prefer the ‘devil they know’, and are resistant to giving up tips. (I’ve been a brewpub brewer, who has many times listened to the bartenders talk about their good weekends, where they made more than my pay for two weeks in one haul.) Even if a steady, fair wage nets them more on average over the long haul, they don’t see it that way, because they don’t get the occasional big score. Good lottery customers….

  3. consciousness razor says

    Good lottery customers….

    Heh. No, this one’s obviously a game of skill. Just like owning a casino is.

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