I was a bartender once, and a server for about 8 months. (My first job I was as a bus boy, making $4.25 an hour in 1991). I remember a customer treating me like garbage, throwing money at me and telling me to get him cigarettes from a vending machine. I was also his waiter, working for tips, so I did it. I still think about how angry and ashamed that made me feel, to be treated like that. Anyway, the point is, you’re vulnerable when you work for tips—especially as a woman.
Nearly 70 percent of tipped restaurant workers are women.
I went to free talk at the U of Minnesota recently by Saru Jayaraman about tipping and the federal minimum wage, and I was blown away by Jayaraman’s energy and passion (I literally felt like I’d slammed 3-4 cups of coffee for a full 3 hours after her talk).
She's a graduate of Yale and Harvard. She probably makes great money (and likely could make a whole lot more), but she’s dedicated her life to representing some of the most mistreated and lowest paid workers in the United States.
She does this through books (e.g., Forked: A New Standard for American Dining), talks like the one I attended, by meeting with restaurant executives to try to persuade them to join her efforts, and even op-eds in the NY Times. It's an important issue.
Every year, 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the U.S. are restaurant jobs, 4 are in tipped occupations—even taking tips into account,” says Jayaraman.
What Jayaraman advocates is called one fair wage (#1fairwage): a standard minimum wage with tipping on top.
Higher minimum wages help all of us
The vast majority of these workers are women who suffer from 3 times the poverty rate of the U.S. workforce, who use food stamps, whose employers cost all of us a total of $16.5 billion annually in taxpayer public assistance—because they don’t pay their employees enough to live.
Now, if you have an anecdote you’d like to share about the waiter or bartender who makes $100,000 in tips and wages a year, she’s ready.
“People don’t go on public assistance because they want to—the hassle, the pain, the stigma—they don’t go on this because they want an extra $1 on top of their $100,000. They work at ihop, Applebee’s, and the Olive garden. They are actually poor,” says Jayaramen.
And they suffer from the worst sexual harassment in any industry in the United States.
“When half of American women have at some point worked in this industry and have been told to dress more sexy, show more cleavage—that if you’re more actively grabbed, you’re more valuable as a worker—it’s no wonder we were fine voting for Donald Trump after his comments about grabbing women,” she says. We've normalized it as a society.
There’s hope though. Seven states, including my Minnesota, have a one wage standard (and my mayor Betsy Hodges attend this lecture—I love my city!). And guess what—the restaurant industry in those 7 states fares better than in every one of the other 43 states, with the highest restaurant sales per capita and faster job growth for their workers.
Since Jayaramen began her efforts, about 190 restaurants have moved in the direction of one fair wage without being told to do so by the gov’t—because the gov’t—our government, is in neglect.
And yet of all people—of all people—that this president would advocate for a labor secretary who is the CEO of Hardee's and Carl's Jr., a person who opposes raising the $2.13 per hour minimum wage for tipped workers (and in general any minimum wages)—should be an outrageous affront to everyone who does now or who has ever worked in the restaurant industry. And it shows you once again exactly the character of Donald Trump to have even considered him.
I want to end with what Jayaramen said of the history of the precursor to today’s minimum wage battles:
Hell yes, we’re the people. Here’s to more we’s and less me’s in America.
So what can you do?
First, take a small step to do good and Make a pledge. Second, the answer isn’t necessarily leaving a 20% tip—the answer is advocating at your local level (attend town halls and city council meetings, calls to legislators, etc.) to change laws in our cities and states until the federal gov't gets on board.
The history of tipping
The National Restaurant Association trade organization’s history dates back to emancipation of slaves. The restaurant industry first lobbied for recently freed slaves to work for $0--tips only (in 1938 it finally came to pass, with the min wage set at $0 for tipped employees). The argument was that these workers were black, valueless in skillset, and that they hadn’t been paid anything for centuries and shouldn’t start getting paid now.
The federal minimum wage for tipped employees in the U.S. has now been frozen at $2.13 an hour for nearly 25 years.
Tipping originated in Downton Abbey times, in Europe, where a superior, or noble gave something extra to a serf (e.g., Donald Trump tossing a $100 to one of his employees to make himself feel good). Rich Americans traveled to Europe, came back and showed off that they were in on the cool European way of doing things by tipping. Remember this was a feudal caste system. Not good.
In fact, Jayaraman told us, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that one of the things that made America so great was that there was no tipping—no vestige of the feudal system.
Saru Jayaraman is the director of the Food Labor Research Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-director of the advocacy organization Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.