If I were to tell you that there are workers in the United States being paid $2.13 per hour, you’d probably tell me that that’s impossible because the minimum wage in this country is $7.25 and anything less is illegal. Well, you’d be right of course, but unfortunately, regulations on the tipped minimum wage have not kept up with the federal minimum wage.
In February, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), in conjunction with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and a number of other organizations, released Tipped Over the Edge: Gender Inequality in the Restaurant Industry. Among its other findings, this report exposes the restaurant business as an industry that has found a way to skirt the federal minimum wage, exacerbate the gender wage gap, and further reduce the economic security of employees by not providing health insurance or paid sick leave to most workers.
In 1991, the tipped minimum wage was 50 percent of the federal minimum wage. However, when the federal minimum wage increased in 1996, the tipped minimum wage remained the same and has not been adjusted. Today, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the tipped minimum wage remains at $2.13 an hour, less than 30 percent of the generally accepted $7.25 federal minimum wage. Although some states choose to raise that minimum, these regulations allow the restaurant industry to shortchange a vast number of its employees—a disproportionate number of whom are women.
As a student with many female friends working in the restaurant industry to help pay enormous tuition bills, I was disturbed by the findings of this report. The reality is that tipped workers often must rely on the generosity of their customers to make a living. Technically, employers are supposed to pay the difference if a worker does not make the minimum in wages plus tips but this requirement may not always be upheld or enforced. As one woman from Fort Worth, Texas testifies, “I can’t tell you how many times I made less than $20–$40 a day during the lunch rush…LOTS…I don’t understand how restaurants get away with not paying their employees minimum wage…”
Gender Segregation in the Dining Room
The notion that women and men should be paid equal wages is also overlooked due to hiring practices in the restaurant industry that solidify the gender wage gap. Female restaurant workers make on average 79 percent of what men do because women tend to hold the lower-paid positions in the restaurant world.
Women, especially women of color, hold a disproportionate amount of jobs in lower-paying restaurants while men dominate fine dining establishments—where wages can be 24 percent higher than wages in family style restaurants. Women who do obtain positions in fine dining are seldom hired as captains or martre d’s, the higher ranking, cushier positions with more supervising duties and less reliance on tips. One account from Tipped Over the Edge quotes a general manager refusing to hire a qualified women of color saying, “You don’t have the look to be a maître d’, but I can hire you as a hostess.”
There are laws that effectually set in stone wage inequality because these different ranks in restaurants hold different minimum wage requirements (the restaurant industry is one of the only sectors where you can find this discrepancy).
Many restaurant workers simply do not have enough money to support themselves: servers are forced to use food stamps at almost double the rate of the rest of the population. Rather than hold employers accountable to their staff, taxpayers have become responsible for the livelihood of many employed people through the size of their tips and the generosity of state programs.
“Try Not to Get Sick”
Not only do many restaurant workers receive painfully low wages, they often cannot afford to stay home when they get sick. In fact, ninety percent of restaurant workers lack paid sick days. One testimony from Tipped Over the Edge quotes a laughing manager telling a sick employee, who was concerned that if she did not go home she would make others sick, to “try not to cough.” Ninety percent of restaurant employees also lack employer-covered health insurance, making it even more difficult for them to seek medical care. Not only is this a violation of workers’ rights, it doesn’t make me feel very safe when I go out to try the best veggie burgers in DC.
My friends have to work in these unfair conditions but, unlike many restaurant workers, they have health insurance from their parents and are not providing for dependent children. For a single mother supporting a child on her own, Tipped Over the Edge shows that the restaurant industry can be a hostile work environment that lacks adequate living wages. Clearly change needs to come to the restaurant industry.
Margaret Kran-Annexstein is a Communications Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.