Progressive activist Diana Ramirez was denounced Wednesday for claiming the restaurant industry encourages a culture of sexual abuse which helped give rise to President Donald Trump.
The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) is a progressive activist group which claims to fight for the interests of restaurant workers. It has been particularly focused on policies that govern tipping. But critics warn the group is really just trying to push union interests with little regard for what industry workers really want.
Ramirez, who serves as the deputy co-director for the Washington D.C. chapter of ROC, blamed the restaurant industry for normalizing sexual misconduct during an interview on the Rick Smith Show. She argued that sexual harassment is common in the industry – and since many women work in restaurants early in their careers, it conditions them to accept such behavior as they advance.
“The restaurant industry is teaching young women what is tolerable and acceptable behavior,” Ramirez said. “And now when women move onto other industries, and they get harassed, and they don’t report it because it’s never as bad as it was in the restaurants. And it’s no wonder we have the sexual harassment scandal in Hollywood and in other industries, because, like I said, one of two people in this country worked at a restaurant at some point in their lives.”
Hollywood became the catalyst for a major movement of people, primarily women, who are calling out their sexual abusers. The movement started with allegations against disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, but soon spread across industries, culture, and politics. Most of all, the movement has been about encouraging victims to speak out and holding their abusers accountable.
Ramirez notes that the sexual harassment in the restaurant industry doesn’t just come from coworkers either. Women in the restaurant industry might be forced to tolerate inappropriate behavior from a customer if it means earning a decent tip. She also argues that this contributes to a greater problem in society.
“It’s no wonder 53 percent of white women voted for Trump because it’s something that’s just ingrained in our culture,” Ramirez said. “It’s a message of slavery, it’s legislative pay inequity when you have the majority of women in the workforce earning a lower minimum wage, and above all, it’s an economic justice issue for us.”
Ramirez adds that policies like the tipped credit have added to the problem by allowing companies to pay below the minimum wage. ROC launched a campaign to scrap the subminimum wage for tipped workers, arguing that everyone deserve the same minimum wage.
Federal law allows employers to use tips as a credit against a worker’s minimum wage obligation. The tip credit essentially permits an employer to pay tipped workers below the minimum wage. The Employment Policies Institute (EPI), however, dismisses the claims as baseless and insulting to people who are victims of sexual abuse.
“ROC has recently made a reputation by saying things that have alienated them very much from people in the industry like suggesting tipping is related to slavery,” EPI managing director Michael Saltsman told InsideSources. “They suggested that tipping, the tipped credit, in particular, is connected to sexual harassment even though government data suggests that’s a bogus idea as well.”
Saltsman adds that the most recent claims are more of the same. The ROC and other critics of the tipped credit system have argued it is unfair, and that the minimum wage should just be raised for everyone instead. Supporters argue the policy encourages employers to allow tipping which helps employees earn more take-home pay from tips.
“Now they’re suggesting that some of the worst behavior we’ve seen from powerful figures in Hollywood is not tied to their own abuse of power, but rather tied back to some experience they might have had in the restaurant industry,” Saltsman said. “This is fake the moon landing level kind of conspiracy theorizing here on ROC’s part. And the most incredible thing for me here is that they continue to get away with saying this kind of thing.”
President Trump winning the presidency has become the source of a major debate that has gripped the country. Many have pointed to his economic agenda for why he won, while others have alleged theories like foreign influence (or even extraterrestrials). Ramirez believes the culture of sexual misconduct that restaurants promote aided in his victory.
“I would say that is almost too silly to respond to,” Saltsman said. “There’s been a tremendous amount of polling data and dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces written about the economic and political factors that aided President Trump in getting elected. I haven’t seen in any of those things anything to do with people working in the restaurant industry. And the thing is ROC’s arguments are totally in conflict with what we actually hear from people who work in the restaurant industry.”
Saltsman argues that tipping is a system that many workers within the industry like. The industry itself provides workers with a stepping stone to future careers, while tipping allows them to get paid well above the minimum wage. He adds that the group is actually promoting an agenda that runs counter to policies that have helped restaurant workers.
“ROC is spouting off and the reason they’ve been given the flexibility to do this is there have people who are sympathetic to their ideological argument,” Saltsman said. “But the more they say this kind of thing, the more people, and servers, in particular, are being offended by it.”
The ROC wants to change policies so workers aren’t competing for the highest tips. That way workers don’t have to risk getting paid below the minimum wage if they reject inappropriate behavior from customers. Critics often neglect to mention that employers have to make up the difference if a worker doesn’t at least make the normal minimum wage after tips.
“There is no doubt that in the restaurant industry, just like any industry, there are going to be some bad actors,” Saltsman said. “The question is, does that behavior have to do with human nature or does it have something to do with tip credits and tipping. ROC has tried to suggest that it’s directly related to the state’s treatment of tipped income.”
Payscale, which provides information on salaries and benefits, found in a 2015 survey of 15,000 bartenders, waitresses, and waiters that they tend to make well above the minimum wage. San Francisco bartenders had the best median tips at $15.50 an hour. New York bartenders had the worst median tips at $7.10 an hour.
The Fair Labor Standards Act was later amended in 1974 by lawmakers so that it was clear employees got to keep all tips even when they make above the minimum wage. The reform did include an exemption for workplaces that pooled tips between their tipped and non-tipped workers.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration later changed the standard again by prohibiting the distribution of tips to anyone other than the workers who directly earned them. The administration at the time expressed concern that employers could use the practice to offset minimum wage obligations. The new administration is in the process of restoring it.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics did try to track tipping during an experiment in 1996. It was ultimately a failure because multiple factors make tips very difficult to track – like how tips are often given in cash. The Atlantic reported back in 2015 that 40 percent of tips go unreported.
Ramirez did not respond to a request for comment by InsideSources.