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?”