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Servers invoke #MeToo

As a waitress, Nadine Morsch was used to having to force an occasional smile for an unpleasant customer. But when a man she was serving made a reference to grabbing her butt, she warned him he better not try. And he made her pay.

For the rest of the hour he was in the diner, she says, he was "running me around as much as possible."

Morsch says she tolerated him, because she needed a good tip.

Experiences like that are one reason activists are invoking the #MeToo movement in the push for more states to adopt higher minimum wages for tipped workers. They say a wage structure that leaves workers dependent on tips often forces them to put up with harassing and abusive behaviour from their customers or risk not being paid.

The effort has been around for years but has taken on new momentum lately with the increased reckoning and awareness of sexual misconduct. Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for public hearings; there's a June ballot question in Washington, D.C., and an effort is underway to get the issue on the statewide ballot in Michigan.

A higher base wage, advocates say, could free tipped workers from the fear of speaking out.

"I wouldn't have needed to feel like my entire life was in his power," said Morsch, who now works at a pub in Rochester, New York.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 2 million people working as restaurant servers in the United States, about 70 per cent of them women.

Currently, the federal government allows workers who get tipped, such as servers and bartenders, to be paid as little as $2.13 per hour if they make at least $7.25 per hour with tips included.

No state is talking about ending the practice of tipping. But seven states — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin — mandate that tipped workers be paid at least the same minimum wage as everyone else. Another 26 states require employers to pay tipped workers a wage at least a little higher than the federal minimum.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an advocacy group, says it has found that service employees in the states that require the same minimum wage for everyone, even tipped workers, reported lower levels of harassment than states that did not.

"This is about the power imbalance that women face on the job," said Restaurant Opportunities Centers United co-founder Saru Jayaraman.



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