By Saru Jayaraman

Caitlin Kenney’s June 22nd piece on tipping was noteworthy to us, as we are the nation’s only national restaurant workers’ organization and have spent a decade researching the industry and advocating for the rights of low-wage restaurant workers. What Kenney’s piece failed to mention is the fact that the current system places the burden of paying restaurant worker wages on customers rather than requiring employers to pay their employees a decent wage. This system has left most restaurant workers with sub-poverty wages that fluctuate dramatically with the season and the health of the economy. Moreover, it does not even serve the consumer well.

Tipped workers are among the lowest-paid workers in America. The National Restaurant Association, the largest restaurant employers’ lobby, convinced Congress to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 for the last 21 years, while wages for the rest of the workforce rise. 53% of tipped workers are waiters and waitresses, who earn a median wage of $8.80 nationally, including tips. As a result, waiters and waitresses experience three times the poverty rate of the rest of the United States workforce. Most tipped workers in the restaurant industry live entirely on tips as they take home a paycheck of $0 after taxes. The unpredictability of tips leaves most workers’ lives in flux: many of our members have been evicted from their apartments because they were unable to pay rent and several are homeless while working full-time in restaurants.All of our members report that their wages are so low, they go straight to taxes.

This situation is not only untenable for most restaurant workers, it is also unfair to the consumer. Why should consumers have to pay restaurant workers’ wages? Why can’t we require restaurant employers pay workers a real wage –at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 – as is the case in every other industry? Workers’ poverty also impacts consumers’ dining experience and health. Two-thirds of the 5000 workers we have surveyed nationwide report cooking, preparing or serving food while sick because they cannot afford to take a day off from work. This is a public health disaster that affects anyone who eats out.

We are not sure which waiters Ms. Kenney spoke with, but the majority of our membership of 7,500 restaurant workers can speak about the need for a stable income that would allow them to support their families rather than continuing to live off of tips alone. The point that is missing from Ms. Kenney’s piece is that the controversy is not necessarily between working for tips or working for a wage. Our members feel that, in addition to tips, restaurant employers must also be responsible for providing an income that workers can depend on. In fact, it is mandated by law that tipped workers are paid at least the full minimum wage in a handful of states, including California where the restaurant industry continues to thrive. A stable income for tipped workers would make a major contribution to poverty alleviation amongst restaurant workers as well as towards the health of restaurant goers.