For these tipped workers, $15 minimum wage is a matter of COVID-19 survival
Introduction by Saru Jayaraman
Last month, members of Congress introduced a bill proposing a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a proposition President Joe Biden included in his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package.
Biden’s initial decision (he has since said that the wage hike might not make it into the final package) demonstrates his understanding that the economy cannot recover after one of the most devastating pandemics in the nation’s history unless millions of low-wage workers are able to recover.
Buried in the proposed legislation is a historic full phaseout of the subminimum wage for tipped workers. With the pandemic, this subminimum wage changed from being an issue primarily of racial, gender and economic injustice to one that is an even more drastic matter of survival.
Tipped workers are being hit with new threats that make the already difficult task of eking out a living more precarious — they have to enforce mask-wearing policies that anger the same customers they rely on for tips (adding to the decrease in earnings), and reports of harassment are up.
The subminimum wage for tipped workers, which exists in 43 states and at the federal level, is a legacy of slavery. Following emancipation, white restaurant owners sought to hire Black workers as bussers and servers without paying them, forcing them to live exclusively off tips. This was made law in 1938, when the United States enacted its first federal minimum wage law yet continued to exempt restaurant workers, allowing them to be paid mostly in tips.
Today the federal subminimum wage is $2.13 an hour — more than two-thirds less than the full minimum wage — and hasn’t gone up in a quarter of a century.
And while restaurant owners are supposed to make up the difference when tips fall short, the U.S. Department of Labor found that nearly 84% of restaurants investigated have violated these rules.
Today, about 70% of tipped workers are women. In addition, tipped workers are nearly twice as likely to be poor.
According to a 2014 survey by theRestaurant Opportunities Centers United and Forward Together of 688 current and former restaurant workers, women in states that allow a subminimum wage report twice the rate of sexual harassment as women working in the seven states — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — that require the full minimum wage in addition to tips.
Contrary to public disinformation campaigns, these seven states have higher restaurant industry sales, small business growth and job growth, and the same or higher rates of tipping as the 43 states with subminimum wages for tipped workers.
The survey also indicated that women who earn a subminimum wage are frequently forced to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior to ensure they get good tips.
The pandemic exacerbated these issues. As of May, nearly 6 million restaurant workers had lost their jobs due to COVID-19. One Fair Wage, a national organization working to end the subminimum wage, and of which I am president, surveyed the 160,000 service workers who applied for the organization’s emergency funds. Between March and May, 60% faced severe challenges accessing unemployment insurance because their wages were too low to qualify.
Those who returned to work were asked to do more for less — working in restaurants that frequently had shorter hours and fewer customers for significantly less in tips.
Another survey on sexual harassment conducted by One Fair Wage, the UC Berkley Food Labor Research Center and the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment in December found that 41% of restaurant workers reported an increase in sexual harassment, and hundreds of women reported what we’re calling #MASKualHarassment — the horrifying phenomenon of female servers being asked by male customers to take off their masks so the men can judge their looks and decide how much to tip.
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that adults have an increased risk of catching COVID-19 eating in restaurants, we rely on these workers to enforce social distancing and mask rules that are difficult to enforce on their current wage system.
Tipped restaurant workers are the only essential workers to not receive a minimum wage, and the only essential workers to be asked to remove their protective gear for a chance to earn their income. Restaurant workers, like those whose stories are featured below, are doing their best to help us survive this pandemic. And now, we need to help them.
Saru Jayaraman is the president of One Fair Wage, director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of several books on the restaurant industry, including “Forked, A New Standard for American Dining.” She is also the former co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. Follow her on Twitter: @SaruJayaraman.
‘This is Not a (pay)Check’
Chantel St. Laurent; Lewiston, Maine
I love working in restaurants, but had to take on a second job as a substance use counselor during this pandemic. It has been a lifesaver.
Working in the pandemic is scary. I have an 83-year-old grandmother I see weekly. I worry about risking her health. And what happens if there’s an outbreak at the restaurant? A lot of us live week to week. If we had to go into a 14-day quarantine, I personally don’t know how many of us would survive financially.
Tips are down. Way down. The restaurant has limited capacity and limited hours due to CDC guidelines causing our in-person business to decrease dramatically. Maybe people don’t know how it works, but those tips are what I live on. Did you know most servers do not get a paycheck? I get a check, every two weeks, but the subminimum wage is so low that when you take out taxes, a lot of times the paycheck literally says, “This Is Not A Check.” Now that I am bartending, it’s a little better, like the time I worked 15 hours and got a $64 paycheck. I count on tips, not my paychecks.
I got into the restaurant industry when I was 19, but I have stayed in the industry to try to support my family and to be able to afford to go back to college. Restaurant work is really great in that way — you can make money while still having a flexible schedule. I just graduated with my associate’s degree, and now I’m working on my bachelor’s in social and behavioral sciences.
I work at a wonderful local restaurant. The people who own it, and all the people who work there, are like family. When the pandemic hit, the restaurant closed briefly and the owners got a Payment Protection Program loan. They used it to help every single employee and get as many of us as possible back to work doing to-go orders when we were able. That was really great. The owners also pooled tips and shared them among all of us, even employees who weren’t able to work because they suddenly had their kids at home or had health issues. It’s a really caring environment.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard.
In the middle of a pandemic, it’s really frustrating that we’re front-line workers but we’re getting paid less than everyone else risking their lives to help feed and take care of people in this crisis. I really love working in the restaurant industry. I love people, I love seeing them come in and have fun.
I’m a lifelong Mainer, born and raised and now raising my own children as Mainers. And I’m proud to be helping our state get through this crisis. I just wish our state would help me, by simply making sure I’m paid the same, full minimum wage as everyone else on weeks where I make less than minimum wage. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask. In fact, it seems like a simple step toward fairness that’s way overdue.
‘The risks are getting higher’
Alyson Martinez-Diaz; Charles Town, West Virginia
I was working at a hotel restaurant, as the assistant front of house and bar manager, when the first shutdowns happened in March. The owners were just as unsure as everyone else of what was going to happen from then on out, but, thankfully, they assured us they would help us out in any way they possibly could. Everything felt uncertain, and they had to lay off nearly the entire staff. The owners offered to help guide every worker in applying for unemployment insurance. West Virginia’s system is notoriously broken.
I was one of five people who kept working — five of us suddenly trying to keep a restaurant, hotel (which had been partially shut down) and an adventure business (which stopped taking customers) managed. We were lucky because we had a resort liquor license so we could sell booze to hotel guests staying on property and taking to-go orders. That kept us in business.
But I was overworked, taking on jobs as assistant kitchen manager, bartender, housekeeper, front-desk agent, manager and full-time advertising agent. I am forever grateful that the owners paid above-average wages. I made $11 an hour during the pandemic, with a few tips on top even though business was down. But the insane amount of work during that period took its toll in stress and strain, and I couldn’t take it anymore. Plus my kids and family needed more of my time during all the chaos, including my husband getting laid off.
So I found another job, as a server at an Irish pub, making the subminimum wage of $2.13 an hour. Tips were always unpredictable, but the pandemic really pulled the rug out. Nine restaurant employees got COVID-19. The owners shut everything down for two weeks. The state couldn’t keep up to really even do contact tracing. During that time, the staff got no pay. None. Nothing. The owners said we should apply for unemployment, but I had already been fighting that system from my last job, and my slow-to-come benefits were drying up. I thought we should get paid under the Family and Medical Leave Act, but the owners said they were exempt. Making ends meet was hard enough before. My family and I barely made it through those two weeks.
I tried to find another job. I applied to nine other restaurants, but so many mom-and-pop businesses are closing. Things are getting really rundown. The entire county that I live in is financially suffering. Some people might not feel it’s worth it to go back to work for $2.13 an hour, especially when tips are so low and the risk is so high. But I was glad when those two weeks were over and I could go back to work.
And the risks are getting higher — not just in terms of getting the coronavirus, but also in terms of desperation. We put up with poor treatment from customers in ways that we wouldn’t before. There are so many examples I could give. Just the other day, I was bartending and overheard a group of men betting about when my left boob would fall out of my jacket. Then they tried to pretend they were just joking. One of them said to me, “Take your mask off, honey. Let’s see that gorgeous smile.”
That’s something I get a lot of. These guys know we need their tips, and they’ll imply if you do what they ask, they’ll throw us more money. It’s wrong and it’s sickening. Living on tips and a subminimum wage (and on top of that having fewer options because of COVID-19) means putting up with it.
I don’t think our lawmakers in West Virginia or anywhere in the country would want anyone they love being treated this way — risking their lives only to be harassed and paid like garbage. I want to say to our lawmakers: Please have a soul and help fix this. One day your own children could be walking in my shoes.
‘I’ve been failed by the system’
John Michael Alvarez; Denver
I was unemployed until two weeks ago after I quit my job as a restaurant server last year. I got into an altercation with a customer who wasn’t wearing a mask. I had been risking my health, for almost no pay and lower and lower tips, exposing myself to a deadly virus, just to help people get a little joy in this moment. But a customer refused to put on a mask, then yelled at me for doing my job when I asked him to wear one. I lost my temper. And when my manager sided with the customer, I left.
I finally found a job advocating for restaurant industry workers, pushing Congress to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025.
I feel like I’ve been failed by the system in every way, even though I’m one of the lucky ones. I was able to collect unemployment during the three months I was out of work. A lot of restaurant workers who get their tips only in cash can’t count those tips as wages for unemployment insurance. Lots of us are told we earn too little to even qualify for unemployment. The restaurant I worked at, our tips went on our paycheck. That ended up being a good thing in a moment like this. But still, the unemployment insurance system is at its breaking point. I haven’t gotten a check in over a month. I’m living off of food banks now. I’m a month behind on all of my bills. I’m even using donated pet food. And I know I’m not anywhere near the only person in this situation.
Working in restaurants for low wages and relying on fickle tips was hard even in the best of times. Maybe it makes sense in a few restaurants with big spenders, but in my restaurant we did tip pooling, so I didn’t even take my tips home. They were divided up equally among all of us by the hours worked. Then, add in the pandemic, and tips were way down. We had to space the tables, which halved our capacity. So I was still working as many hours but taking home way less.
I don’t think a lot of customers and a lot of policymakers realize how fortunate they are, and that the rest of us don’t have a safety net of family or savings to catch us. We’re on our own. We work hard to earn what little we have, and it can all be wiped away in a minute.
Regular folks are the people whose hard work, dedication and ambition make this country stronger. And we need to make sure our work is validated and compensated in a way that reflects the fact that we’re essential. That should feel clearer now more than ever.
Haley Holland; Scottsdale, Arizona
I work as a hostess and server, and the amount of bullying that guests get away with is really unacceptable — always, but especially now with being asked to wear masks. I try to be so gentle and nice about it, explaining the restaurant rules that if people are waiting inside and aren’t seated in the dining area, either they can wear a mask or they have to wait outside. We even have masks we offer them if they don’t have their own. But I get the dirtiest looks, the rudest comments. It’s abusive.
The other day, a woman came inside to pick up a to-go order. I asked her, very politely, if she could wear a mask. But she refused, because she said she had a health condition. Which is obviously completely her right, but I explained that in that case she’d have to wait outside. When she made a fuss about it, my supervisor said the same thing. She knew that our policy was that customers didn’t have to wear masks while eating in the dining room, so she went over to one of the dining tables and flopped herself down and just sat there, maskless, exuding hostility. Then when it came time to pay for her to-go order, she didn’t tip. She didn’t follow the rules — rules meant to keep us and customers like her safe — and I’m the one who pays the price, in every sense. When she signed the bill, she literally threw it at me.
Two days later, she came back to complain about me. She said that I was rude and had embarrassed her. She lied and said that she had been wearing a mask all along, but that I had made her feel like she had the plague. I was lucky. My manager apologized to her but I didn’t get in trouble. But at another job, with a less supportive manager, there’s no doubt I would have been penalized. On top of not getting paid, which is the biggest penalty of all.
I work is in a very affluent area. The tips can be really good. But the pandemic has not only subjected servers to routine harassment but also has ruined our tips. I’ve worked in the restaurant industry my entire adult life and never, ever, had an employer make up the difference between the subminimum wage and the full minimum wage when tips fall short. I know that’s what they’re supposed to do, but they never do.
I’ve been very fortunate to work at some great local restaurants with managers who really seem to care about their workers. But let’s be honest, at the end of the day, it’s always about the bottom line, and too many restaurant owners will do whatever they can to increase their profits. Restaurant workers are now public health workers, enforcing these lifesaving guidelines with customers, at the same time we’re forced to rely on those very customers to feed our families and pay our rent. It’s just not fair, and it just doesn’t work. And it’s restaurant workers like me who are paying the price.
‘Instability and abuse’
Dominique Brown; Washington, D.C.
I worked for tipped wages in restaurants forabout seven years. I work as a concierge now. It’s more relaxed, and I feel more respected.
I was born and raised in our nation’s capital, and after going to college in West Virginia, I came back to Washington, D.C., ready and excited to start working as an actress — but realized I needed to make money. I started working in restaurants as a hostess and worked my way up to becoming a server and eventually trained as a bartender. I’ve worked in some of the top restaurants in Washington. And I’ve also done some of the same work in New York City. I really love the industry. I love taking care of people. I love helping people come together through food. My love language is acts of service and communing over meals, meeting different people, talking about where we come from and sharing our stories — I love that part of restaurant work.
But I don’t like the instability and abuse. I’ve had managers who expected us to do work off the clock and if we didn’t, they’d take us off the schedule for the next week or move us to shifts with bad tips. I worked at one restaurant where there actually was a class action lawsuit for forcing us to do nontipped work on a tipped worker wage. In one case, I had to carry trays that were so heavy, I developed a cyst on my wrist. The manager didn’t care. He just wanted me back at work. And when I returned to work against my doctor’s recommendations, after being pressured to do so by management, he had another manager write me up after I set a tray down while helping a guest. Restaurants can be a great environment to work when you have managers who care, but I feel like the subminimum wage gives some people permission to treat us like we’re subhuman.
That goes for customers, too. I’ve had customers who wanted to touch my hair. I’ve had others, especially in Washington where a lot of businessmen come for conferences, who have been dismissive and disrespectful to Black and brown staff. This especially happened with a lot of white businessmen from the South. But we’re just supposed to laugh it off and take it so we can get our tips. It’s a really problematic system.
It was bad enough putting up with all of this before the pandemic. But when the pandemic hit, it became clear how much the restaurant I was working at didn’t care about any of us. They did some kind of GoFundMe for staff but didn’t share the money with everyone. I didn’t get a penny. And it turns out one of our co-workers died from COVID-19. I found out from a co-worker, not from management. Management didn’t give what I thought was the proper amount of attention to staff after that happened. That’s when it really hit me how little they valued our work and our lives. Plus, as much as I miss some of my regular customers, the ones I really made a connection with, I was tired of the customers who acted nasty and entitled, and didn’t even have the decency to tip.
The restaurant I worked at in New York shut down in March, at the beginning of the pandemic. To add insult to injury, like so many other restaurant workers left jobless, I had trouble getting unemployment insurance and still haven’t received all the money I’m due.
Now I work for a company that pays me a livable wage. I get benefits.
I’d love to go back to working in restaurants someday, but things would need to change. My friends who are still working in restaurants are struggling more than ever to make ends meet. And it shouldn’t be that way. These are hardworking professionals. They’re worth more than that. I’m worth more than that. And we need wage laws that respect our work and our worth.
Are you a tipped worker? What’s your story? Tell us using firstname.lastname@example.org or #tellusatoday on Twitter.