Valuing the People Behind the Tip
I was recently invited by Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center, to join an afternoon of storytelling in honor of the BE HEARD Act, a comprehensive federal bill addressing harassment and violence in the workplace, and One Fair Wage in NY campaign to pass legislation requiring the restaurant industry to pay all its employees at least the full minimum wage.
The afternoon began with a rousing performance of the Resistance Revival Chorus followed by compelling and achingly painful stories of survivors in the restaurant and nail salon industry. Senator Alessandra Biaggi recounted her own experiences of harassment in government underscoring how abuses of power manifest at all levels. Her advocacy is a testament to the need to fight this battle on all grounds. Actress, activist and producer Alysia Reiner reminded us that “we all have a story to tell” and that sharing our stories can help us build power to change laws and conditions.
In anticipation of this afternoon, I struggled with finding the words that would honor the countless stories of women who have faced far more precarious positions than I. Alysia’s story in particular resonated because similar to her experience, ever since I can remember, I’ve had a running reel in my head that said something to the effect of “I don’t have a story to share. I haven’t experienced sexual violence. I’ve had advantages all of my life thanks to my family’s sacrifices. Sure, I’ve had to endure countless sexual innuendos from men in power. I’ve had to smile through lightly veiled racist comments. But, I’ve just had to bear with it. It could be worse.” Yes, it could be worse but it doesn’t have to. The cumulative effect of these comments, actions, and microagressions lead to the consistent disparities and abuses of power in the workplace. I’m no longer willing to hide my story. This is what I shared:
I was recently in a conversation at an inclusion and equity training about how privilege and power show up in our daily lives, and it was centered on tipping.
Minutes earlier, we had been actively building solutions for fairness and equity in their workplaces. When we asked participants whether they believe they should tip their Uber or Lyft drivers, things got real. All of a sudden, this group of well-intended and progressive professionals launched into an intellectual exchange about a failed economic system that favors company profit, the unfair burdens of having to make up those gaps, and somewhere along a few commented that they would tip to reward good service but not tip when their driver was rude or incompetent.
I paused the conversation and said, “You should always tip. If you are to live out the equity-minded values you espouse, then you have a responsibility to tip your drivers and anyone else in the service industry for whom tips are a matter of survival.” And breaking from my facilitator role, I shared my story.
My dad has been a doorman at the Grand Hyatt hotel on Lexington Ave for nearly forty years. He’s that friendly, short guy with a mustache and a top hat who hails your taxis, can tell you how to get anywhere in NYC, and can dissuade you from taking an Uber or Lyft ride because “they don’t know their way around the city”. He protests ride-shares partly because they chip away his cut of the tip and because they disrupt the take home pay of men and women who have long relied on an imperfect and unjust system to augment barely livable wages.
I grew up knowing that those tips sent me and my two brothers to college. That those tips allowed me to have opportunities my father could only dream of. And the impact of those tips on families and communities here and abroad. For people to dismiss and belabor the practice of tipping is an emblem of reducing people’s humanity and worth in the workplace.
My dad enjoys sharing stories about the everyday happenings at the hotel. Funny and sometimes jaw dropping accounts of people from all walks of life. But the stories my dad rarely shares are those I know hurt the most. The daily indignities of those who disregard his intelligence or diminish his sense of worth because of his service position. The stories of the women who are harassed and propositioned while trying to change a guest’s sheets. I know working in a hotel is not an easy job. My dad has endured numerous back, neck and arm surgeries resulting from the wear and tear of picking up and moving luggage all day long.
Because of my father’s literal back-breaking, tip-based work, I had the opportunity to work at the world’s largest and most admired companies - Moody’s Investors Service, The Walt Disney Company and Google. While my time in the service industry was short lived as a waitress throughout college, as a human resources executive, I have been hired to be in the service of an entire workforce for decades. I’ve witnessed first-hand how women, especially women of color, disproportionately endure workplace bias, harassment and pay discrimination all the while companies tout symbolic and feel-good commitments to gender equality.
When I joined the workforce, I quickly learned that in order to survive in the workplace, I needed to put on an emotional armour every single day. For years, I had to leave parts of myself at the door because it wasn’t safe for me to bring my whole self to the workplace. Like many women of color and other marginalized identities, I faced the personal and professional harm of exclusion from inside circles, the emotional burden of subtle misogyny, and the exhaustion from dodging racist daggers on a never-ending loop.
All while I was tasked with solving for and being the face of diversity programs that claim to want our bodies to be present, but not our voices. We are made to feel invisible and disposable, and our voices muted by men who have no trouble taking up all the space and air in every meeting and hallway conversation.
Bias and harassment in the workplace—in any workplace from a corporate board room to a hotel hallway to the front seat of a Lyft— should not be something that anyone, especially women of color, indigenous women, immigrants and women in low wage jobs, are expected to endure. Your gender, racial and cultural identity should not be considered a source of shame and something to be minimized. It is your magic! No one should have to spend all of their physical and emotional labor figuring out how to navigate work spaces so that they can survive.
I am the mother of an 11-year old daughter and my greatest wish for her is that anywhere she goes in this world, she feels seen, valued and safe. That means that, in turn, my job is to ensure that she sees and values the humanity of others. Whenever I see a woman in a service job, like the corporate support staff who clean our offices and stock our kitchens, those who serve us our lattes, or those who clean our hotel rooms, I see mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts who are bravely sustaining families and communities, and who have dreams and aspirations they deserve to reach.
Daily slights and microagressions hold tremendous weight and impact. They are key contributors to and enablers of toxic workplace cultures. To build safe, respectful and dignified workplaces, we have to interrogate our own behaviors and everyday comments loaded with racism, classism and misogyny. We have to call truth to power, and be willing to put a mirror up to ourselves when our actions and words contribute to the continued oppression and marginalization of the people we say we wish to uplift and support. And we have to constantly search for our shared humanity and see, recognize and value the people behind the tip.