Opinion: Liquor server minimum wage called unfair

Argument made for why liquor servers should be paid the same minimum wage as other workers.

Provincial government being called upon to address wage inequities and violation of human rights in restaurants and bars across B.C.

By Kaitlyn Matulewicz & David Fairey

If the provincial government doesn’t think that liquor servers should be paid the same minimum wage as other workers, the least it could do is to regulate tips and tip pooling — a common practice of tip redistribution — as Ontario has done with its Protecting Employees Tips Act.

In September, B.C.’s minimum wage increased 40 cents to $10.85 per hour, and the province also raised its other minimum wage, the one for liquor servers, to $9.60 per hour. B.C.’s liquor server minimum wage was established in 2011 and the gap between it and the regular minimum wage has steadily grown from 25 cents to $1.25.

Meanwhile, the province of Alberta has just abolished its liquor server minimum wage with its commitment to establish a $15 minimum wage for all workers by 2018.

B.C.’s liquor server’ minimum wage resulted from strong pressure by employer groups during a stakeholder engagement process. The government did not — and has still not — researched the impact of this lower minimum wage on employees or employers in the restaurant industry.

Tipping means that customers assume a responsibility usually reserved for employers: paying workers for their labour.

The liquor servers’ minimum wage in effect legitimizes tipping and gives an unprecedented wage subsidy to restaurant and bar owners. Statistics Canada data shows that 81 per cent of food and beverage severs in B.C. are women, meaning the lower liquor server’ minimum wage is especially unfair for women.

Recent research conducted in B.C. by Kaitlyn Matulewicz found that the dependence workers have on customers for tips leaves them vulnerable to enduring sexual harassment and sexualized behaviour from customers as a “price” to be paid for a tip — a form of institutionalized quid pro quo.

If workers do resist by, for example, speaking up against customers who are harassing them, they risk losing a tip. Over time, sexualized behaviour from customers can become normalized – something workers simply put up with to earn a living.

Some employers also use the promise of earning higher tips to entice workers to accept discriminatory gender-based dress codes that require workers to wear make-up, high-heeled shoes, low-cut tops and high-cut skirts.

In short, the liquor server’ minimum wage supports customers paying workers, and in doing so, reinforces the sexual harassment of women who work as servers, bartenders and hostesses, and contributes to the sexualization of food and drink serving overall.

Research from the US Restaurant Opportunities Center United revealed the connection between tipping and sexual harassment in restaurants.

According the their report, The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry, women restaurant workers in states with a sub-minimum tipped wage are twice as likely to face sexual harassment than women restaurant workers in states that pay a full minimum wage to all workers.

Our research suggests that the reliance workers have on customers for tips is heightened under the precarious working conditions faced by restaurant industry workers, a situation worsened by inadequate employment standards legislation in B.C.

In jobs where there are no paid sick days, extremely variable work schedules that include open-ended or on-call shifts (if you’re not called in, you’re not paid), and no regulations for employer collection and distribution of tips, the power imbalance between employers and workers — and between customers and workers — are intensified.

The B.C. government must address these inequities and violation of human rights in restaurants and bars throughout the province.

The liquor server’ minimum wage should be eliminated, and ownership of tips received by all service workers should be regulated. Laws that allow employers to pay workers a lower minimum wage because they receive customer tips increase these workers’ reliance on customers for their livlihood.

The impact is not gender neutral and it contributes to the normalization of sexual harassment and sexualization of the workplace for food and drink-serving businesses.

Kaitlyn Matulewicz is a doctoral candidate in law and society at the University of Victoria with extensive experience as a server in the food and beverage industry. David Fairey is a labour economist, a research associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC, and co-chair of the BC Employment Standards Coalition.