Op-Ed: Restaurant Servers Can't Live on $2.13 an Hour

The tipped minimum wage has been stagnant since 1991—and that needs to change.

tips for waiters

(Photo: Angela Wyant/Getty Images)

Maria Myotte is the National Communications Coordinator at RocUnited.

We’re in restaurants a lot. The average adult eats out four to five times a week; as a nation, we spend 47 percent of our food budgets dining out. And with more than 13 million people counted among the industry’s workforce, 1 in 12 Americans has held down a restaurant job.

That's why people think they’re pretty familiar with the restaurant industry. Until, that is, you find out that of the country’s 10 lowest-paying jobs, restaurants provide six of them. Also, there’s a sub-minimum wage for folks earning tips, and the corporate restaurant industry has successfully kept it at $2.13 an hour since 1991. Furthermore, a tip isn’t just something extra (nor does it ensure “good service”)—it’s the majority of a server’s wage.

So how did something started “To Insure Promptitude” (TIP) devolve into a system of food workers who are themselves struggling to afford to eat? Easy. The corporate restaurant industry has succeeded in bypassing a central tenet of doing business—paying its employees.

Consider the National Restaurant Association. Although the restaurant industry boasts a .001 percent unionization rate for its more than 13 million workers, its corporate brands are heavily organized. The NRA—the lobby of choice for Fortune 500 restaurant companies like Red Lobster and Olive Garden (owned by the mega-brand Darden Restaurants Inc., the largest full-service restaurant company in the world), among others—is one of the top lobbying firms in Washington, D.C. And whenever it hears rumblings about raising wages or improving labor standards, like requiring paid sick days, it quashes them.

The last time the federal tipped minimum wage was up for an increase was in 1996. While the minimum wage went up that year, the tipped wage got frozen in the midst of the debate. Herman Cain, then head of the NRA, cut a deal with Congress to ensure an increase to the full minimum wage so long as the tipped minimum wage remained at $2.13 forever. It hasn’t budged since.

Again, the NRA and corporate restaurant brands are quick to chirp, No one actually earns $2.13; employers are legally required to pay the full minimum wage when tips don’t add up. Yet, despite that being the law, enforcement is weak and disorganized; as a result, wage theft—employers stealing from their employers—is shockingly common. According to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, the federal government employed only one workplace inspector for every 141,000 workers in 2008. That meant the average employer had a 0.001 percent chance of being investigated in a given year. When you’re living off tips, you most likely cannot afford to pay a lawyer to sue your employer for wages that are rightfully yours—and there’s little other recourse available to workers.

Low wages and wage theft have an impact on workers and on society too: Servers use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce and are three times as likely to live in poverty, according to the Aspen Institute. Instead of earning a fair wage, their income is subsidized in two ways: with tips and through taxes for public assistance programs like food stamps.

Not surprisingly, the reality of living off tips is usually in direct opposition to the NRA’s talking points. In fact, corporate restaurant brands have been talking on behalf of their workforce for way too long. So ROC United is spearheading a campaign to amplify the lives of people living off tips in its new campaign to raise the tipped minimum wage, Living Off Tips.

If you’ve never been a server, start by getting to know the folks bringing food to your table. Extend your conversation to include them: How long have they been in the industry? Are they supporting a family? What’s the craziest thing that ever happened to them at work? If you’re a seasoned veteran, or just did a stint of waiting tables in college, share your story at livingofftips.com.

Going out to eat is an extraordinarily beloved pastime. Not only do we turn to restaurants for a quick meal, but we often go out to celebrate life’s most important moments. Like sharing a dinner with family and friends, the act of preparing food and serving it to diners is a rather intimate transaction. We’re connected at the table, whether you realize it or not, and together we need to demand more of the industry.

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