Katherine Lazar knows how to deal with men who flirt: She’s been a waitress for 12 years.
To maximize tips, she said, she smiles and laughs. She always pretends to agree with their politics. For the hour or so they spend at the cozy cafe where she works in northern Illinois, she will happily give their ego a boost — in return, they’ll usually leave behind a little something extra.
Lazar never used to worry about these men. If they ever went too far — asking for her number, suggesting they meet up after her shift — she’d shut them down.
That has all changed in the pandemic.
Last year, Lazar could easily make $150 a day in tips. Now that the cafe is only open on weekends for takeout, she said, she’s lucky if she makes $30. Her new job at a women’s shelter, making $11 an hour, isn’t enough to make up the difference, said Lazar, who lives in public housing with her two young children. She’s been relying on large tips from men who are “regulars,” including one who always leaves $20. When he recently asked to see her outside of work, she said, she didn’t feel like she had a choice.
“I don’t want to do it, but I do because that’s 20 dollars every day.”
The coronavirus has exacerbated the power imbalance between tipped servers and their customers, according to a new study by the nonprofit One Fair Wage, which surveyed 1,675 food service workers in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. While tipped workers — 70 percent of whom are women — were always somewhat beholden to their customers, the coronavirus economy has given the customer far more power, leaving servers vulnerable to sexual harassment and health risks, as many customers refuse to respect the restrictions necessary to keep servers safe. Struggling to get by, servers are more reliant on tips than they used to be.
“Tips are way down, servers are struggling to pay their bills,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. “So every customer who walks in the door has more power than they did before.”
Many survey respondents noted that they’ve been asked to remove their masks so the customer can “see that pretty face under there.” Some say they were explicitly told to take off their masks so the customer could decide how much to tip.
“They’ll tell me to take off my mask because they want to see me,” Lazar said.
Natasha Van Duser started her bartending job at a New York City bar a few weeks before shutdowns began in March. When the bar reopened in July, she said, she was surprised to be one of the few servers invited back — others had been working there far longer. Her manager said he needed a “pretty face,” she said.
Van Duser didn’t appreciate that comment, she said, but decided to go back anyway: She’d been out of work for more than three months, getting by only with help from her mom and boyfriend. She needed the money.
In a typical week, Van Duser makes about $350, compared to the $1,000 or more that she’d been making in early March. With fewer people in the restaurant, she said, tips are “way down.”
Eighty-three percent of workers surveyed by One Fair Wage say their tips have declined during the coronavirus. Almost two-thirds say that, like Van Duser, they’re taking home less than 50 percent what they used to in tips. Far fewer people are dining out, said Van Duser — and the people she is serving are often strangers, less inclined to tip well. The pandemic has kept many of the bar’s “regulars” at home.
With fewer opportunities for tips, Van Duser said she feels more pressure to make a good impression.
“I feel like I’m walking on pins and needles the whole time,” she said.
Coronavirus restrictions can affect tips, too. It’s often the waitress’s job to remind customers to wear their masks or enforce social distancing. Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed say their tips go down when they invoke these requirements.
Customers leave smaller tips “because they’re frustrated or mad,” said Melissa Poole, who works at a small sports bar in Louisville.
Some will walk out, reminding Poole that the sports bar down the street isn’t enforcing the same restrictions. The vast majority of the customers are politically conservative, she said, and resent the coronavirus protocols.
“I know it’s a reason we’re not as busy,” she said. But she’s not willing to bend the rules: Of the 10 servers and cooks on staff, Poole said, she is one of only three people who haven’t yet tested positive for the coronavirus.
Customers have been quicker to disrespect and harass servers during the pandemic, too. Forty-one percent of those surveyed say they are sexually harassed more often now than they were before the coronavirus, and many have been harassed for enforcing coronavirus restrictions. One customer spat on Van Duser when she asked her to wear her mask. Another threw several plates and cups on the floor, Van Duser said.
“I’m actually a little scared now to be honest.” After both incidents, she said, she asked her boyfriend to come by the restaurant until she finished her shift. “I was so nervous being there alone.”
Van Duser is constantly worried about her safety while she’s at work, she said. Along with the harassment, she said, she’s concerned she’ll be exposed to the coronavirus. The management hasn’t been complying with industry safety protocols. She’s hesitant to complain too much, she said, worried it could cost her the job.
At the cafe in Illinois, Lazer tries to be as careful as possible. She stays away from the customers when she’s not serving them.
Her mask is always on, she said, unless a male customer asks her to take it off.
“Then I consciously try not to go within six feet,” she said. “But I will if I have to.”