The state of Massachusetts is a bad place to be a tipped worker. The minimum wage in the state is $11.00 per hour, but its tipped minimum wage is $3.75 per hour, a 238% difference and the widest gap in the USA.
Marie Billiel, who works in a restaurant with tipped minimum wage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, knows this system well. She said that tipped wages are supposed to be brought up to minimum wage by employers, but are often not. “There is a shockingly high non-compliance rate,” Marie said. “There were nights when I would walk out with $30.00 in my pocket for an eight or nine hour shift.”
Tipped workers like Marie are often not only supporting themselves, but also their families and loved ones too. “One of the things I dislike most about the industry is the way it is viewed. A lot of people assume that everyone in the industry couldn't get a 'real job'; that it's all just for beer money; that it's young people in the industry. But it's just not true. It's working families. It's working moms. There are so many single mothers that make up our workforce.”
Almost 2 million restaurant workers are in fact mothers, according to Restaurant Opportunities Center United. A third of these working moms earn less than federal minimum wage, and ninety percent do not have paid sick days. Furthermore, the majority of female servers—both mothers and non-mothers—are not paid enough to enjoy basic economic security.
“It's working families. It's working moms. There are so many single mothers that make up our workforce.”
In this tips-for-survival system, exploitation is common. Marie said that one of the primary forms of exploitation is sexual harassment and that it is caused not only by customers, but by coworkers too. “When we talk about sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, we often talk about it coming from customers, but it also happens within the restaurant itself. It's something that you absolutely have to put up with because your tips are at risk.”
On one particular night shift, while her manager was in the front of the restaurant and watching TV, Marie said that a man grabbed her by her wrist and pulled her out back, demanding that she kiss him. Moments of harassment like this included being grabbed, whistled at, cat-called, and commented on her body. Marie said that she, “had some of the cooks show me pornography against my will,” and that she was, “kissed against my will,” and, “held against my will.”
At some point, Marie decided to speak out. She was inspired by other people who had overcome, “things that had happened to them,” and were, “willing to look in the face of whatever was making their life difficult.”
“This really isn’t okay. This really is a big deal. None of us deserve this. We all deserve a safe place to work.”
Sexual harassment directly impacts an individual's self-esteem. Marie said that one of the hardest parts of her fight has been overcoming depression. Depression affects food industry workers more than any other industry. 10% of food workers in general (and 15% of women food workers specifically) have depression. Marie said that sometimes she, “can't get out of bed,” and that she thinks, “it would be easier if I could not be alive.” She feels this way a lot, but, ultimately, she said that she, “just goes, ‘Well, here we are, so let's just do the thing.’”
Marie decided to write a blog about her time and experiences as as server. The blog has since inspired ten other women to also come out with their own stories. “We still have got a lot of work to do, but the more we get out and talk about it, the more people who say, ‘Oh, I experienced that,’ we're on a very clear path to fix a lot of the issues,” she said. “And I think that it's still going to take work, but it's definitely coming.”
Marie sees people like herself, “Fighting the good fight in whatever way,” because, “This really isn’t okay. This really is a big deal. None of us deserve this. We all deserve a safe place to work. I think that when I see people speaking out about things despite all of the difficulties that will present to them, when I see people fighting the good fight in whatever way, that's really, really helpful and inspiring to me.”
This piece was filmed in 2017.