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ROC's rock-headed push for higher wages

I’ve just bailed on an anti-restaurant propaganda session that would have made Mao proud. A well-spoken antagonist of the business was attesting that a young waitress had a thumb thrust up her rear every day because the restaurant where she worked could legally assume her income consisted mostly of tips.

The only way to stop such abuse, according to the gadfly: Require restaurants to pay the same minimum wage to servers that they do to non-tipped staffers. In the chilling picture she painted, allowing employers to factor tips into their payroll obligations is tantamount to pimping the female waitstaff.

“When a woman is forced to get her income from customers, however they want to touch her or mistreat her,” she has to put up with it, declared Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United. Not that she’d know firsthand; Jayaraman is a Yale-educated attorney and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Her exposure to the restaurant business has been as a manager, overseeing ROC’s Colors training restaurant in New York City.

But Jayaraman said she’s been contacted by hundreds of waitresses who’ve suffered sexual harassment because of the so-called tip credit, which allows employers to pay a server as little as $2.13 an hour if tips are sufficient to make up the rest of the mandated minimum wage. 

That set-up, Jayaraman suggested, turns a self-respecting server into a pole dancer. Play naughty or you won’t get paid at all.

And that perception extends to management, Jayaraman contended. A waitress collecting only $2.13 an hour from her employer is “encouraged by management to sell her body,” she declared, though she never explained how the federal tip credit prompts restaurant managers to act inappropriately.

That disconnect didn’t stop her from recounting the experiences of a young waitress who was the subject of a chapter in Jayaraman’s 2013 book, Behind the Kitchen Door.

“Her manager told her to dress more sexy, to show more cleavage, so she could get more tips,” Jayaraman recounted. “She felt she had no choice. Every day her manager would insert his thumb into her pants and up her butthole.”

Management and customers’ sense of entitlement culminated in the woman getting raped, said Jayaraman, who unabashedly traced the tragedy to the tip credit.

That was about the time I disconnected from the conference call. Clearly I was already disconnected from the reality put forth by Jayaraman and ROC.

I’ve known some real sleaze bags, but I can’t recall anyone, anywhere, ever suggesting a tip was a pass to take liberties with a waitress.  I have trouble believing the tip line on a credit-card slip automatically triggers a predatory disposition on the part of customers, much less managers.

I know exponentially more people who depend on others for their livelihoods, either because they’re salespeople on commission or merely salary earners who serve at the discretion and pleasure of their employer. They’re recounted unacceptable situations, but there wasn’t the correlation suggested by Jayaraman between pay and abuse. The condemnable situations always seem to be more a function of rotten human nature than holding the purse strings per se.

Yet Jayaraman expressly connected widespread sexual harassment in the restaurant business with the convention of a tip credit, which is legal in 43 states. Outlaw the tip credit nationwide and raise the minimum wage, she lobbied, and you alleviate the abuse.

She was correct in noting the EEOC fields more sexual harassment complaints from the restaurant industry than it does from any other field. It’s a serious problem the industry needs to acknowledge, damn and cauterize.

But Jayaraman was clearly exploiting the issue for her cause, which should just as readily be condemned. Instead, her argument was picked up today by USAToday, ABC, CBS, TIME and at least a dozen smaller media.

We think this is about all the coverage she deserves for her stab at exploitation and backhand attempt to raise wages.

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