The past year has seen a surge of stories about sexual harassment, from the political world to Hollywood, in business and in communities.
In New York and many other states, sexual harassment has been seen as a problem in the food service industry in particular.
In December 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor, aligning itself with the National Restaurant Association, proposed a rule that would allow employers to keep workers’ tips when they are paid at least the minimum wage. The idea was that tipping was to blame for high rates of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he plans to end minimum wage tip credits and instead have servers, like other workers, earn a flat rate.
Those in support of a flat pay rate say that, under the current system, sometimes a server has to choose between overlooking inappropriate behavior and risking the loss of a tip by protesting.
But local restaurant workers — tipped or not — feel they and others in the service industry are being shortchanged. Many local service employees say they aren’t flashing a smile to harassing customers for better tips.
“It’s an absolute cop-out!” Bullpen Tavern owner Paul Bricoccoli said about the theory that tips fuel sexual harassment.
Numerous servers interviewed in Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties said they work hard for their tips and want to keep their tips but will not tolerate sexual harassment for better tips. Most of them emphasized that they, and their bosses, are prepared to protest bad behavior.
“Anyone who disrespects my female employees is out the door in 10 seconds. I have no problem kicking people out who treat my employees with disrespect,” Bricoccoli said.
Bricoccoli has four female servers/bartenders and said he has rarely had any issues with sexual harassment. In his 24 years in business, he said he has heard the odd inappropriate comment and witnessed a grab her and there, but it has been addressed on the spot.
“And if you do (have problems), it’s the owner’s fault. Using tips as the reason is such an excuse,” he said.
Not always right
Lauren Squires, a bartender and server at O’Toole’s Restaurant Pub in Queensbury, credits her management for maintaining a respectful atmosphere.
“We’re servers, not slaves,” Squires said.
Squires said she has received her share of lascivious comments, but she isn’t afraid to handle them on her own.
“But honestly, he or even our regulars would put an end to it before I even had to,” Squires said, pointing to her boss, Mike Moynihan, the general manager.
“We’re a little family here, from the front of house to the back. We all have each other’s backs.”
Squires did note that the “customer is always right” ethos tilts the equation, creating a power imbalance, but added that, at some point, the customer is just wrong.
Maggie Raczynski, a bartender at Outback Steakhouse in Clifton Park, said her staff would never stand for sexual harassment either, because “here we treat each other like family.”
“And family doesn’t stand for that,” she said.
Raczynski cited a recent piece from The New York Times, published on March 12 and headlined “The Tipping Equation.” The story explored how far is too far when weighing harassing behavior for a better tip.
In the article, waitresses described encounters they had with pushy men who touched them, made outrageous remarks and threatened their tip if they didn’t participate in the power trip.
Raczynski said an even more infuriating aspect of the story were the women’s cases in which the waitstaff confided in their managers, who then sided with the customers. One even shook a customer’s hand after he had made inappropriate remarks to the waitress.
“Just because we work for tips doesn’t mean we don’t have basic human rights and don’t know the difference between right and wrong,” Raczynski said.
Asked to leave
In this area, The Post-Star approached servers at seven local establishments to ask about their experience with sexual harassment in the workplace and tipping. Two servers did not participate, because they didn’t want to discuss their incidents or get their workplace in trouble; one never followed up with The Post-Star; one said she has never dealt with sexual harassment at work; and the other three, quoted in this story, said they address any problems they do encounter head-on.
All of the interviewed establishments have their own sexual harassment policies, and most assign a new server to an offending customer or simply ask the offending customer to leave.
“If you cross a line with me, your money won’t make or break my life. And if your boss won’t do something about it, your boss has a boss. There are other options and nobody should have to tolerate that. Trust me, there’s another job for you in another restaurant,” Raczynski said.
Fighting to save tips
In New York, there are roughly 200,000 servers and bartenders, making those jobs the most common in the state.
On March 21, restaurant workers and their allies won bipartisan support from members of Congress and the Trump administration to include a provision in the omnibus budget bill that, if enacted, codifies protections for tipped restaurant workers against employers, supervisors and managers taking any portion of their tips.
Employers in New York currently are permitted to pay tipped workers a direct cash wage that is below the state minimum wage and take a “credit” for some of the tips received by employees to satisfy the difference between the cash wage paid and the full minimum wage.
With the current model, servers can make a good living. Data from the New York City Hospitality Alliance show that servers could average $25 an hour with tips.
Raczynski makes anywhere from $17 to $35 an hour from tips alone, she said. Her $7.50 per hour wage comes on top of that.
“It’s because I work hard at my job and am good at my job, and for no other reason,” she said.
Kelsey Silburn, 25, a bartender at Bullpen, said the tips make the work feasible.
“Most of us would not be able to pay our bills without the tips that we receive, even if the minimum wage was raised,” Silburn said, talking about the legislation to emphasize wages over tips. “It seems like those in charge of making this decision don’t really understand how something like this will affect the employees and the restaurant business as a whole.”
That message was echoed loud and clear on March 15 at Longfellows Hotel in Saratoga Springs.
More than 100 servers and restaurant owners attended a meeting that day, and Raczynski was one of them. Joshua Chaisson, a leader with Restaurant Workers of America and within Restaurant Workers of Maine, helped lead the meeting.
Restaurant Workers of America is the first organization of its kind — an employee advocacy organization dedicated to the preservation of tip income.
The purpose of the forum was to get servers and other service industry employees from the area together to express their dislike for the proposed tip credit law and discuss how to move forward. When the topic of sexual harassment fueling the tip proposal came up, numerous women, and men, made gestures and sounds of disappointment.
“What a lie” and “so insulting” were comments audience members made.
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, was FaceTimed into the conversation.
“You’re professional salespeople and not victims, and I support you,” Woerner said over the phone.
Raczynski wrote a letter in response to the 16 celebrities who announced their support for Cuomo’s proposal. Between New York and Maine, 500 servers have signed the letter.
“To the celebrity women who recently criticized the full-service restaurant industry, from thousands of women who work in it, thank you for your concern. But we don’t need your help, and we’re not asking to be saved. You’ve been misled that we earn less than minimum wage, and that we are somehow helpless victims of sexual harassment,” is how the letter starts.
“Bad behavior happens in every industry — Hollywood celebrities should know better than most that sexual harassment happens everywhere. The people who are pushing for this change in the restaurant industry are exploiting the isolated stories of people that have suffered injustices, and making it out to be the industry’s or the tipping system’s fault. That is just not true.”
“We respect your profession, and now it’s time for you to respect ours.”