Restaurant Workers Are Hungry for Pay Checks

By Padmini Parthasarathy

Leaving a gratuity in American restaurants is pretty much expected. For restaurant workers, those tips are the difference between feeding their families and going hungry. The current federal minimum wage for tipped workers is just $2.13. And nearly 70 percent of tipped workers are women.

Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Fund (ROC) United, has been lobbying to raise the tipped minimum wage. While the federal minimum wage has been raised five times since 1985, the tipped minimum wage has stayed at $2.13. All thanks to Herman Cain, fodder for late-night comedians and former head of the National Restaurants Association. When a federal minimum wage hike was being negotiated in the ’80s, a last-minute deal was struck to keep the tipped minimum wage at this ridiculously low rate in perpetuity. Since then, every deal to increase the federal minimum wage has excluded tipped workers. Because of this, tipped workers are three times more likely to live in poverty than non-tipped workers.

If legislation now in Congress actually passes, the tipped min wage will rise to $7.07 an hour.

The restaurant industry is the single largest contributor to the 23-cent wage gap between men and women. The majority of these tipped workers aren’t employed at fine dining establishments, either. For a woman who works at an IHOP or a Denny’s, the wage almost entirely goes to taxes, and she is left living completely off her tips. If she’s working a graveyard shift, she is earning almost nothing.

The tipping system also affects working conditions.

Mara Montalvo, a server since the age of 16, recently left the industry after she was sexually harassed one time too many.

"A customer cupped my breast, and started stroking my arm when his wife was in the bathroom. I was shaking, went and told my boss. He said that he didn’t want to 'make the customers feel uncomfortable' so he told me to wait in the back until they left," said Montalvo. "He also told me that I needed to mature, and when I was older, I would learn how to deal with these situations better."

After having experienced several similar incidents, she decided that that was the last straw. She now works as a nanny full time.

When women are completely reliant on tips, they must endure sexual harassment from customers to pay their bills. They also have to work when they're sick because missing a day’s work means losing money for food or a rent check. This might mean having to flirt or wear a shorter skirt just to make ends meet.

"For most young women, this is their first job. This is young women’s first exposure to the world of work. What are we teaching these girls about the workplace? They are put in the demeaning situation of basically having to basically beg for their money," said Jayaraman.

At some point, we need to reflect on what the word gratuity actually means. It is something given voluntarily or beyond obligation. What we’re actually doing when we leave tips is enabling the restaurant industry to get away with not paying their employees. They’ve passed the buck onto us, and their employees are living day to day hoping that they don’t get sick, hoping that their customers will leave a decent amount and won’t harass them. This is not how the fastest growing industry in America should be treating working professionals.


Image Credit: flickr cc, "At The Window" by Donald Lee Pardue