With more than 10 million workers, the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy; it is also the lowest-paying. Six of the ten lowest-paying jobs in the United States are restaurant jobs, and seventy percent of tipped restaurant workers are women. While the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the minimum for workers who receive tips is just $2.13. Tips are supposed to make up the difference, but in reality they don’t. When your only hourly guaranteed wage is $2.13, you live off tips. Many of the women who put food on our tables cannot afford to feed their families. Servers use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce, and are three times as likely to live in poverty.
“My mother worked as a server at a chain restaurant for almost 20 years. In that time, she never made a base wage higher than $2.13 an hour,” says Chelsea, a restaurant-worker activist. “Despite this, she raised four children on her own, stretching every penny as far as it would go. She worked long hours to make ends meet. It is a terrible decision to make whether to spend time with your children or to work long hours away from your family to be able to offer them the most basic necessities.” This story is not an exception. There are 2 million mothers working in restaurants; 1 million are single mothers with children under the age of 18 .
The tipped minimum wage used to go up each time the regular minimum wage rose. But in 1996, after intense lobbying by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) under the leadership of former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, Congress passed a law allowing the overall minimum wage to increase as long as the minimum for tipped workers stayed frozen. This “other NRA,” which represents the nation’s Fortune 500 restaurant corporations and has been named one of the top lobbying groups, spends millions every year fighting against wage increases and paid sick leave bills, among other policies.
Living off tips puts women workers at the mercy of customers and managers to survive; many women earning the tipped minimum wage (including servers, dining room attendants, bartender assistants, hostesses, counter attendants, and more) are forced to tolerate all kinds of inappropriate treatment to earn the bulk of their income. The restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment charges filed by women with the EEOC, accounting for 37 percent of all claims.
To give a voice to restaurant workers and let the public know what conditions are really like, ROC United has launched “Living Off Tips,” a campaign featuring stories, portraits, and video testimonials from tipped workers. Gloria Steinem kicked off the campaign by sharing her own experience as a server living off tips. Another former server, Samantha, said, “I was lucky if I was able to pay my rent in a studio apartment an hour’s drive each way from the café I worked at. Health insurance was never a possibility because I couldn’t afford it and the restaurant didn’t provide it.” A young server, whose mother also worked in the food industry, says, “I love what I do,” but points out, “the tipped minimum wage has been $2.13 since before I was born.”
We are also harnessing the power of consumers, encouraging them to speak up whenever they eat out. Just as restaurant customers have learned to ask, “Is this locally sourced? Is this organic?,” they can speak to managers or owners and encourage them to do right by women and pay a livable wage. We have made available a brief instructional video on how to have this conversation (as well as an excellent Diner’s Guide app detailing wages and benefits for some of the most popular restaurants in the U.S.).
As Gloria Steinem says, “If you’re living off tips, it means that you are not getting a living wage.” If you know what it’s like to live off tips, please share your story.
A version of this post originally appeared in Women’s Media Center.