If you’re observant, you can point out those of us who have worked as waiters or waitresses at some point in our lives. Long after we’ve ditched whatever ugly uniform we had to wear, we continue to carry unwieldy items–pizza boxes, trays of food and drinks, etc.–in one hand, balanced on one palm. We make a point of addressing restaurant servers and grocery cashiers by the names pinned to their uniforms, and we try not to leave pennies on the table as part of a tip. Perhaps most tellingly, we tip well. Sometimes, even for sub-par service or food if it was obviously caused by factors beyond our server’s control.
If you’ve never been a tipped employee, you may think, “I work hard for my money, too, so why should I give a ‘bonus’ to servers?” What you may not know (in fact I hope that the miserly tippers don’t know this) is that the federal minimum wage for tipped employees is currently $2.13 / hour. Thirty plus years ago, when I was a tipped employee, it was $2.01 / hour. Yep, that’s right:
In the 30 years since I’ve had to rely on tips to pay my rent, buy my textbooks, put gas in my car, etc., the federal government has only raised the minimum wage for tipped employees a full 12 cents an hour.
So, those “bonuses” servers get from tips should more accurately be called “wages.” No one, not even the thriftiest amongst us, can live on $2.13 / hour. Even working full-time (40 hours / week) equates to just about $85 / week–before taxes. And most tipped employees receive few, if any, employer-paid benefits such as healthcare coverage, paid sick leave and paid vacation. Try to imagine living on $85 / week without any benefits. Lest you still think that working as a tipped employee–very physically demanding work, I might add–can be a gold-mine, keep in mind that those “bonuses” in the form of tips are also taxable and often must be shared with other restaurant personnel, who are most likely also paid $2.13 / hour.
Assuming you, like me, think leaving hard-working people’s ability to earn a living wage in the customer’s hands is unjust, you might be asking, “What can I do?” At a minimum, you can be more conscious of your tipping habits because until the powerful lobbyists who’ve convinced our elected officials that it’s OK for you and me to pay the bulk of servers’ wages are shouted down, there’s little chance we’ll budge from today’s $2.13 minimum wage. You can also take a few minutes to educate yourself on other ways to help food service employees, everything from making small changes in your own tipping behavior to making conscious decisions on which restaurants to patronize–or not–based on how they treat their employees.
To learn more, start here
– Lisa Rismiller, Women’s Center Director