Tip Your Servers This Valentine’s Day

Tip Your Servers This Valentine’s Day

Tip Your Servers This Valentine’s Day

In the restaurant industry, the wage gap between men and women is a matter of policy. Millions of the restaurant workers who serve our food cannot afford to eat. 


Call it part two of last week’s report. No sooner had the blood cooled from the “he-covery” than in came more stark news from the world of women’s work. This time, it’s not just discriminatory employers at fault; it’s the federal government.

“In most industries, the gender wage gap is due to employer discrimination. In the restaurant industry, it’s also a matter of policy,” says Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the workers’ group, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC).

Virtually alone among employers, in the restaurant industry predominately male positions have a different minimum wage than predominately female positions. Since 2007, non-tipped workers (52 percent male) have a federal minimum wage of $7.25. Tipped workers (66 percent female) have a federal subminimum wage of $2.13.

Congress established that sub-generous subminimum for tipped workers back in 1991. Thanks to active lobbying by the National Restaurant Owners Association (one of the top twenty-five lobby groups in the United States), it has stayed at $2.13 ever since.

“The outcome is that servers, 71 percent of whom are female, are suffering a gender gap that doesn’t just mean inequity, it means the difference between living below or above poverty line,” says Jayaraman. (The federal poverty line is $18,000 for a family of three.) Food servers, it turns out, are twice as likely as the general population to use food stamps.

“The millions of workers who serve our food can’t afford to eat,” says Jayaraman.

Think about that as you sit down for your next meal. If Valentine’s Day 2012 is anything like last year, some 70 million lovey-dovey eaters will be served. According to a new report from ROC and a dozen partner organizations, within servers, the industry’s largest occupational category, full-time, year-round female servers are paid 68 percent of what their male colleagues earn ($17,000 vs. $25,000 annually). Black female servers are paid 8 percent less than that, costing them a deficit of more than $400,000 over a lifetime.

Mayaba Liebenthal, an African-American server at Stanley restaurant in New Orleans, has been in the business for fifteen years and sees no chance that she’ll ever move into a management post or to a better-paying “fine dining” establishment. “As a worker, I’m not able to access healthcare; I have to work when I’m sick and [I’m dependent on tips that vary every week]. I can’t save money, I can’t afford time to go to school.”

As for those tips? While managers generally decide whether tips are gathered into a pool, workers themselves determine how tips are distributed. So pay rests on subjective interpersonal relations, says Liebenthal. “It’s not fair, and it’s painful always to be wondering if this person going to pay me what I’m worth as a server or what he or she thinks I’m worth as a person?”

The law says that employers are supposed to ensure that tips make up the difference between the tip minimum wage and the regular minimum wage, yet the researchers behind the new report say they’ve heard from many workers that not only does that not happen but employers also tell workers to report that they are earning minimum wage. This means that workers end up getting taxed on income they don’t have. As a matter of law, taxes—levied on wages and tips—are deducted from wages. Workers making a good deal in tips (cash) have to remember to put money aside to cover the taxes they owe that their wages weren’t sufficient to pay.

“Diners may be aware that they are subsidizing their server’s wages; the thing that people don’t know is they’re subsidizing the wages of runners and busers and all the tipped workers” says Saru. Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association is forecasting a record-breaking $635 billion in revenue in 2012.

ROC is equipping interested diners with information-packed palm cards to hand out to managers and servers. “It’s going to take customers speaking up and showing they care to make things change,” says Jayaraman. “Twenty years ago, customers started asking about organics and locally produced food, and the industry responded.”

ROC has also issued a 2012 directory of restaurants that take the high road and pay their tipped workers the same or close to the same as the federal minimum wage. Seven states have already done away with the subminimum, including California, the number-one restaurant state in the country.

“Running a restaurant is hard. Running it right is profitable,” says Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa, New York City. Sibley says she spends more on wages, but far less on waste and retraining.

Real change, however, needs to come from Congress. Maryland Democrat, Donna Edwards, showed restaurant workers some love this week by calling for Congressional action in an op-ed co-authored by Jayaraman for the Hill:

“There is no reason that the women who cook, prepare, and serve our meals should trade their health for wages and face limited opportunities for career mobility. America’s working women cannot live off the status quo and we must show them the economic respect they are long overdue—in the form of living wages, paid sick days and health coverage, and an end to discrimination and harassment.”

President Barack Obama pledged to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an Hour by 2011. It hasn’t happened. If he put some muscle into the push for that (indexing it to inflation as he promised) and into raising the subminimum too, he just might be forgiven. As he said back in 2008, “people who work full-time should not live in poverty.” Raise a glass to that this week—and leave a tip—at a high-road restaurant where the workers don’t starve.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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