Tipped Workers Forced to Keep Silent

November 7, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco

Sophia Brewster and Courtney Walker.

Sophia Brewster and Courtney Walker.

New York, NY – Biting your tongue in the face of unwanted sexual advances and condescending abusive behavior from crass customers shouldn’t be part of anyone’s official job description. But that’s exactly what too many working women surviving on the state’s sub-minimum wage of $5 an hour have to put up with every day on the job.

Sophia Brewster and Courtney Walker both work at JFK International Airport’s Terminal 4 in Queens. Each has families to support, and must rely on unpredictable tips to make ends meet. So, despite supportive managers and powerful union representation from UNITE HERE Local 100, the two service industry workers say they are still afraid to cross the abusive jerks that sometimes darken their workplaces. 

“You definitely come across men that try to push that line,” says Walker, 30. “But you kind of play the docile role.”

“They think that just because you’re a server, they can treat you any old way,” says Brewster, 45. “I don’t like that.”

As women, Brewster and Walker are part of a group that represents more than 70 percent of all tipped workers in the state. They work hard, often tolerate outrageous behavior on the job, and on average, only earn $0.84 for every dollar a man makes. It’s even worse for African-American and Hispanic women who earn just $0.67 and $0.54 respectively for every dollar a man makes. 

In addition to her job at Terminal 4, Walker also works one day a week at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where she’s had to silently endure even more unacceptable behavior from certain customers.

“They’ll say things like, ‘I wonder how you look outside of that uniform, and all types of other uncomfortable things,” Walker says. “Sometimes, it makes me want to react and tell them this is not an appropriate way to talking to me. But again, that’s your money, so you don’t want to say anything to upset your guest.”

Brewster has been in the service industry for more than 10 years, and prides herself in being able to maintain a sunny exterior at all times, but she, too, says, “Sometimes I think this business is over and I can’t be a server anymore.”

Trapped in an untenable situation and with few options, servers like Brewster and Walker who rely on tips to survive, often confront outrageous behavior the best way they can.

“You have to dress it up,” Walker says. “Make them feel comfortable and not alienated about what you’re saying back to them.”

Worker rights advocates are pressing Governor Andrew Cuomo to not only scrap the sub-minimum wage so that all workers in the state are paid a truly livable minimum wage – but so that women in particular no longer have to endure the kind of on-the-job harassment that the system allows. 

“Economic security and stability has become an increasing concern for many families in New York, particularly amongst single parent households led by women,” says Councilmember Laurie Cumbo [D-District 35], chair of the Women’s Issues Committee. “Most families continue to struggle to meet the rising cost of living and deserve to earn a fair wage that leads to self-sustainability and not poverty. One’s pay for an honest day of work should not be primarily comprised of customer tips, and sets a bad precedent for inappropriate sexual behavior and harassment.”

In the future, both Brewster and Walker say they would like to open up their own small businesses – but for now, they must continue to endure abusive cutomers. 

"It's hard," Brewster says. "You're struggling all the time."

November 6, 2014

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