Do Tips Cause Discrimination and Sexual Harassment?


When servers and other employees work for tips, every detail can determine how much they are getting paid. Many employers unwittingly influence these details, which means younger, lighter-skinned servers get more tips – and effectively make more money for performing the same job. This is the definition of discrimination.

Meanwhile, servers and other tipped employees must cater to the whims of their customers to receive tips, which means they often endure harassment at work. Additionally, supervisors may place employees they see as more attractive in busier sections of restaurants and other workplaces, making tipped workplaces especially vulnerable to sexual harassment.

Advocates Take the Issue of Discrimination in Tipped Workplaces to Court

Civil rights advocates are taking these issues to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a lawsuit against Darden Restaurants for discriminatory practices at Seasons 52 Wine Bar and Grill in Memphis, Tennessee.

According to a former employee who spoke to Eater, younger, lighter-skinned employees were given busier, front-facing sections of the restaurant, while older, darker-skinned employees were relegated to emptier sections in the back.

There would be nights where I made $300 to $400 and my coworker would go home with $60 or $80. And that was normal,” she explained.

Although subtle and possibly unintentional, Darden’s policies at Seasons 52 violate the civil rights of people of color. Advocates hope to start with Darden and eventually eliminate tipped minimum wages in Tennessee and nationwide. In the United States, 43 states have a different minimum wage for tipped workers, and 15 states (including Tennessee) allow restaurants to pay tipped workers the federal minimum wage of $2.13 per hour plus tips.

The Potential Impact of the Darden Lawsuit

Darden has 175,000 staff at 1,800 locations across the United States. If the company changed its procedures, it would likely have a ripple effect – much like companies like McDonald’s paying double the federal minimum wage in some states. Additionally, advocates say:

[If a court] says it’s illegal for Darden to pay a subminimum wage, then it’s going to be illegal for everybody else.”

How Tipped Wage Reform Could Benefit the Country

During the COVID-19 pandemic, tips went down, and harassment went up, causing many servers to leave the restaurant industry. Reforming tipped wages could help solve the nationwide labor shortage affecting the service industry.

With the COVID-19 crisis, even Darden took steps outside of court to improve tipped worker wages. Darden promised its tipped employees $10 an hour as of March 2021.

Still, tipped workers are subject to subminimum wages and part-time scheduling, ultimately bringing home an average of just $16,137 per year.

Sexual Harassment from Customers

When severs and other tipped employees rely on customers for tips, they must put up with conditions they would otherwise find unacceptable. With tips, an employee’s livelihood depends on the customer’s satisfaction. If a worker were to condemn an uncomfortable comment from a customer, they could lose their tip and jeopardize their livelihood.

This has led to one Darden employee and countless female employees across the service industry “putting up with sexual harassment, inappropriate comments, or an inappropriate hand on the back.” Tipped workers suffer more harassment than those who receive standard wages. Experts say that tipped workplaces “build sexual harassment into the structure of their employment.”

Darden workers, in particular, have overwhelmingly reported sexual harassment and discrimination. A former Olive Garden bartender was even denied medical leave and fired when she told her employer she was having a baby.

These blatant violations lead to countless lawsuits within Darden, other restaurants, and all tipped industries.

Donati Law, PLLC has handled many of these lawsuits.

If you are suffering discrimination or sexual harassment at work – or even if your subminimum wage and tips do not add up to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, please do not hesitate to contact our firm.

Our attorneys have been helping workers recover back wages and hold bad employers accountable for more than 35 years. We sincerely want to improve workers’ lives and the communities we share, and we often do this through lawsuits, settlements, and litigation.

If something is wrong at work, and you are ready to discuss your case with a caring attorney, please call us at (901) 209-5500 or send us a message online.

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To discuss your case with an accomplished attorney who cares, give our firm a call at (901) 209-5500 or fill out the form below.

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