Despite employing a growing of workers every year, the restaurant industry is still plagued by low wages, few benefits, and sometimes dangerous working conditions. These challenges tend to weigh heavily on women in the industry. Last month, a survey of workers in the Greater Boston area by the Restaurant Opportunity Center, found that more than a third of complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry. (Restaurant employees make up 10 percent of the workforce overall.) According to the report, 35 percent tipped workers in Greater Boston reported that they have been sexually harassed by customers, more than twice as many as non-tipped workers.
Marie Billiel was recently promoted to manager at a cafe in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after almost 10 years as a server, and has spoken and written about her experience with harassment in her restaurant jobs. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Billiel about her job as a server, the challenge of dealing with her unpredictable income, and the prevalence of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: How did you get into the restaurant industry?
Marie Billiel: I'm originally from a very small town called Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, which is basically in the woods. There are less than 2,000 people, and so there are not really a ton of options for part-time work as a high schooler. When I was 15, I started dishwashing at a local restaurant where my boyfriend's mother works. That was pretty short-lived simply because I was just in school and the hours were long and late for a 15 year old.
After that, I worked in a local health-food grocery store and we had a deli where we made sandwiches. That gave me a lot of experience working with food and also working with the public and from then to go into serving just made sense.
Green: Where was your first serving job?
Billiel: My first official serving job was at a 99 Restaurant in Greenfield, Massachusetts, which is a chain similar to Applebee's. I was terrible. In corporate restaurants, they're very specific about how they want things done and exactly what you should say. I understand that for branding, but in terms of developing client relationships, it puts a damper on that. With that said, I was also only 18 and hadn't really served before. I did not have any finesse and hadn't developed my own kind of charm in order to make tips and be able to develop those relationships with customers.
They over-hired because it was a grand opening, with the assumption that people would leave. When not many servers ended up leaving voluntarily, I was definitely on the list of ones they were trying to push out; they were only giving me about one day a week.
Green: How did you get the job that you have now?
Billiel: I decided to continue serving and got a new serving job because I wasn't ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. From there I went to a 24-hour diner in Hadley, Massachusetts, and I was also in college. It gave me a lot more flexibility in terms of shifts I could work.
I worked overnight shifts there when I first started. It was a five-college town—UMass Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst College, and Hampshire all right there. The weekend overnights were pretty crazy. We had a lot of drunk college students, a lot of really big parties, the fraternities and sororities. It's really its own kind of grind working overnight shifts in that kind of setting. It's different than bartending, but we certainly had our fair share of inebriated college students.
I remember while I was training, a group of probably nine people came in with one girl that was basically passed out. She had her arms over the shoulders of two friends who were bringing her in. My manager stopped them and said, "Is she drunk," like demanded to know. They sort of sheepishly were like "Yes." I thought he wasn't going to let them come in, but instead he said, "Well, if she throws up, you're cleaning it up." They were like, "Okay." She did, in fact, throw up on the table and she just sort of lay there sobbing and they were reaching over her grabbing french fries. It absolutely blew my mind.
Now, I work at Café Luna, which is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and have been manager actually just over a year at this point.
Green: What are the responsibilities of a server?
Billiel: It varies day to day. Typically you come in, figure out what your section is, and management briefs you on anything unusual. Depending on where you work, that could be anywhere from big parties to catering orders. It's really knowing the menu and the drinks. While a server's job doesn't necessarily always change that much, they need to be aware of what's going on within the entire restaurant. Even though they're not necessarily doing anything with the catering order, maybe it's going to slow the kitchen down.
The restaurant I work in now is on the smaller side. We really only seat about 30 to 40 people. Frankly, our servers kind of have it easy. They don't have to do quite the volume of side work that I'd had to in the past at other restaurants.
Green: Being a server sounds physically demanding. What has that been like for you?
Billiel: It's tiring in a lot of ways. Certainly it's physically draining, because when it's hectic you run, run, run. I used to actually use a pedometer on my busier shifts just to see. You walk a lot, and blow through shoes. I used to work at a place where we would also have crazy parties and we’d be hoisting trays and plates, people were always blown away by how many plates I can carry on my arms. I'm like, "I've got ten years under my belt, guys. My right arm is super strong."
It's also emotional labor having to have that mask on all day. You hit so many difficulties, whether it's with customers or in the kitchen, or things that are going on in your personal life. It's very hard to keep up that appearance for eight hours consistently. I really feel for the servers that I have now because [the restaurant has a very open floor plan]. We don't have like a closed kitchen. There's nowhere you can go and take that mask off for a minute like I tried to do at other restaurants. It can get to you. For me, that's always been what's been more tiring than the actual labor.
Green: The wages are a big point of contention in the restaurant industry. How do you feel about it?
Billiel: Obviously everybody knows that that's a difficulty of serving. Unfortunately, it's just been accepted as such. A lot of people throw around this idea that if people wanted to make more money an hour, then they would go back to school or they would get a better job. I think that is super short-sighted and unfair for a variety of reasons.
It is possible to make really good money as a server; I've done it. The issue is that it's completely inconsistent. While you might have a great night and make $200, the next night you might make $30. It's nearly impossible to plan for anything. How do you plan your rent, your car payment, or your student loans when you never know, should I be spending this on my electricity, or should I be buying food?
A lot of times I have customers ask me, "Oh, do you think that this day will be busy?" There's no formula. You may have a super busy day, but get all of the people who don't think it's their job to tip. Or you might work another busy day, but serve people who are drunk and think they tipped you. I'm completely for abolishing the sub-standard minimum wage for tipped employees because I think that if you are there and you are there to do the work then you deserve to get paid for it, end of discussion. One of the things I also really like to talk about is sexual harassment coming from the kitchen, because people don't really understand how much that can affect your income. When people think generally of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry they think of it coming from customers, which is certainly a very real thing. There are more sides to it than that.
Green: Could you tell me more about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry?
Billiel: It's not easy. I'm very fortunate that I now work at a place that takes it a lot more seriously than places I've worked in the past. I'm grateful that I'm in a position now where I have more power in the situations than I did as a waitress. At the diner I worked at in Amherst, it was just a barrage of comments, of unwanted touching, and I got shut in a walk-in cooler more than once. There are certainly people who have had it worse. I think on the scale of what one may experience in the industry, my experience was fairly severe. Having had that experience I feel has really given me the kind of desire to make sure that my employees never have to deal with that. [Editor’s Note: The Massachusetts attorney general’s office filed a discrimination complaint against the diner in March 2015. The suit was settled in 2016, and Marie Billiel was named as one of the beneficiaries.]
Green: How do you overcome the inconsistency in your wages when trying to plan for things like bills?
Billiel: One way is that servers frequently just work really extensive shifts. Another way is that they just live in poverty, unfortunately. I did that, living on food stamps, for a while. It's hard. There has been research into the fact that tipped employees in the restaurant industry used public assistance at a higher percentage than almost any other occupation.
That's a really hard thing to reconcile. It's certainly like a dark aspect of the job. It's disheartening because there are a lot of really lovely, enjoyable things about serving. People love food, and being able to contribute that to someone's day is really amazing. I have regulars from the diner that I worked at five years ago and we still send each other cards in snail mail. I've met my very best friends working in the restaurant industry. On the flip side, it's really hard to be putting in that much effort and not being guaranteed a consistent pay.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a sales associate, a bartender, and a pizza-delivery driver.
This article is part of our Inside Jobs project, which is supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.