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Despite Progress, Restaurant Servers Still Struggle

Policy changes have improved working conditions in restaurants over the past year, but servers say more work needs to be done.

Rachel Sanders 9 May

Rachel Sanders is a Vancouver journalist, editor and photographer. Her work has been broadcast on CBC Radio and has appeared in the Toronto Star, the Georgia Straight and the Victoria Times Colonist. Find her on Twitter here.

Restaurant servers in B.C. don’t have to wear heels on the job anymore. And by 2021 they’ll be earning the same minimum wage as most other workers in the province. But some servers and advocates say more should be done to improve working conditions in B.C. restaurants.

“It looks like there's change being made but I don't know if it's really getting to the root of the problem,” said Megan, a server who works at a high-end burger restaurant in Vancouver.

Megan, whose name has been changed because she’s concerned about jeopardizing her job, said that, high heels aside, sexist dress codes persist in the industry. This means that, along with the precariousness of serving jobs, servers’ reliance on tips for their income and an industry culture that often tolerates harassment, recent legislative changes have made little difference in the working lives of most servers.

“You have to give some credit where credit is due. These are progressive steps forward,” she said. “But the over-sexualization — kind of sexual exploitation — of women is the result of the tipping culture. And that hasn't really been addressed and it's still very, very prevalent.”

Because servers rely on tips for much of their income, Megan said, they’re more likely to tolerate harassment so they don’t risk losing income. Lauren, a server who has been working in B.C. restaurants for a decade and who asked that her last name be withheld to avoid risk to her job, said harassment in restaurants is widespread.

“Basically every server I know has been sexually harassed,” she said.

Lauren applauds recent policy changes that affect the industry, but she said the changes don’t go far enough.

“You shouldn't be able to tell your employees that they have to wear skirts above the knee. Or to the knee. You shouldn't be able to tell them that they have to wear skirts at all,” she said.

It’s not only dress codes that concern Lauren. Safety is also an issue in many of the restaurants she’s worked in, she said.

“I've called WorkSafe a number of times on my employers,” she said. “We're hauling 50-litre [beer] tanks a lot of the time with no training, with no steel-toed shoes, in tiny spaces. Those kinds of things often need to get done in the industry and there's often very little organizing or safety training around it. And I also consider sexual harassment and assault a matter of workplace safety.”

She wants to see comprehensive workplace sexual harassment policies in place in every restaurant. Both Lauren and Megan also said they’ve experienced frequent violations of employment standards, including being expected to work long hours with no overtime pay.

“Sometimes I end up working a 12-hour day. And no one gets paid overtime. Even managers I know don't get paid overtime,” Lauren said.

She knows margins are slim in the industry, and it’s hard for restaurants to make a profit.

“At the same time, I think if you are going to choose to be an employer and run a small business then you need to find ways to compensate for the labour you are getting,” she said.

Kaitlyn Matulewicz, an organizer with Victoria-based advocacy group the Retail Action Network, said the true concerns of women working in the restaurant industry have not yet been addressed.

“Banning high heels was great. It's 2018 and mandatory high heels shouldn't be a thing that exists,” she said. “But if we're going to address the problems of sexual harassment and precarious work, there need to be changes to the Employment Standards Act that make work environments in which people feel able to speak out against things like wage theft and not getting paid for overtime and to speak out about things like sexual harassment.”

Matulewicz said one of the challenges with enforcing the ban on mandatory high heels is the inability by servers to make anonymous complaints about employers.

“They can make a tip to the hotline anonymously, but if you actually want to file a complaint with WorkSafe you can't do that anonymously. So if you want to keep your job and you want to file a complaint it's pretty hard to accomplish both things,” she said.

Matulewicz said more job security would allow workers to speak out about problems without risking losing shifts — or their jobs. If schedules were more secure, she said, workers would be better positioned to speak up about abuse. She said the problem stems from lack of regulation on the minimum number of hours that an employer can offer.

“That's something that I think would increase workers’ security is if they are told they'll be given 30 hours a week or if they can actually rely on getting 30 hours a week,” she said.

Matulewicz also said that while she welcomes the government’s decision to phase out the liquor server wage, she’s disappointed in the timeline. Liquor servers currently earn $10.10 per hour, which is $1.25 less than the standard minimum wage of $11.35. The provincial government announced last month that it will close the gap between the liquor server wage and the standard minimum wage, but the gap won’t be fully closed until 2021.

In an emailed statement to The Tyee, Labour Minister Harry Bains said that the timeline for increases to the liquor server wage was recommended by the Fair Wages Commission after public consultation. It allows businesses to adjust to increased labour costs, he said.

Matulewicz doesn’t think such a long grace period is justified.

“I think the restaurant industry in B.C. has had it pretty good for a long time,” she said. “The liquor server wage has been in place for seven years. B.C. is an anomaly in Canada in that only B.C. and Ontario have a liquor server minimum wage and other provinces don't, and they do just fine.”

As the minimum wage goes up, Matulewicz said, she’s also concerned that there aren’t any regulations to protect servers’ tips.

“We're worried that even though minimum wage is going up, without strong employment standards regulations protecting workers’ tips from management and tip theft that any hourly minimum wage increase will be weakened by that,” she said. “Other jurisdictions like Ontario and New Brunswick and P.E.I. have legislation in place that protects workers' tips. And B.C. is lagging behind in that respect.”

The group has launched a campaign asking that rules on tips be added to the Employment Standards Act. Bains said his ministry plans to update the act over the next year so that it reflects the ways in which workplaces have changed over the past few decades. A $3 million budget increase to the ministry over the next three years will help ensure the updated standards are enforced, he said.

Above all, the restaurant industry needs to start taking harassment seriously, Matulewicz said.

“I think the industry has been really silent on the problem of sexual harassment,” she said. “They haven't acknowledged that there's a problem of sexualized violence in B.C. restaurants, so that's pretty disappointing.”

Ian Tostenson, the president and CEO of the British Columbia Restaurant and Food Services Association, agreed that the industry should play a role in addressing harassment.

“I think we probably should do more on this,” he said. “We should probably be saying more ‘you don't have to tolerate that, no one has to,’ to the employer or the employee.”

Tostenson said the shortage of workers in B.C.’s restaurant industry gives more power to workers to simply walk away from bad employers. Market pressures will force employers to improve working conditions in their restaurants, he said.

“I don't think that we need more regulation,” he said. “It happens all the time — that they bring in a regulation and then no one follows up.”

The lack of enforcement renders regulations ineffective, Tostenson said, adding that guaranteeing servers a minimum number of hours would put too much pressure on employers. But he has recently seen some restaurant employers work to make schedules more predictable so that workers can better plan their lives.

“We can't as an industry complain about not having labour and then not make any adjustments to try to attract new pockets of labour,” he said. “You've got to give the owners the flexibility, but the owners have to be making themselves competitive to attract the talent.”

Tostenson said the labour shortage is stimulating a culture change in the restaurant industry.

“There's so much pressure right now to do the right thing, because if you don't you're going to get outed,” Tostenson said.

Lauren agrees there is change afoot in the restaurant industry.

“I think the culture of what we think about as being workplace appropriate is changing, for sure, and I think it's a good thing that it's changing,” she said.

She credits women like herself and her co-workers for the change.

“I work in a community of servers where we are no-bullshit, smart, feminist women and we don't take shit. And we cultivate that for each other in our own workplace,” she said.

She sees the recent policy changes on dress codes and minimum wage as a sign that industry and government are finally starting to hear the concerns of workers.

“I think it's really great. I think it's absolutely a start,” she said.  [Tyee]

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