There are plenty of industries out there that we wish would do better by their workers, but the restaurant industry poses a very specific problem. Here’s the largest and fastest growing economic sector in the US producing 6 of 10 lowest paying jobs in the country. Why? The majority of their workforce don’t get paychecks. The federal tipped minimum wage has been $2.13 since 1991. That wage is quickly devoured by taxes; many servers don’t even bother with picking up their check. Instead, they’re living entirely off tips. Most of us are familiar with living check-to-check, but imagine living quite literally shift-to-shift.
What’s worse, the service-tip correlation is a myth. Plenty of servers can tell you about the time(s) they worked extra-hard to take care of a particularly demanding and large party’s needs, only to get stiffed. Not to mention, tips are voluntarily. Some folks simply “don’t believe” in it. Research also shows that restaurant-goers tend to tip the same amount every outing, regardless of service… and according to a recent poll, most folks are tipping less than 20% because “they can’t afford to.”
That all means that restaurant workers depend on public support programs to get by. A la Walmart, corporate restaurant chains actually operate at an expense to the community. Servers use food stamps at double the rate of the general workforce and are three-times as likely to live in poverty. Most small businesses, however, already pay above the minimum wage, and a majority support increasing it.
However, good news is on the horizon. For the first time in two decades, tipped workers may see a major raise. The Minimum Wage Fairness Act proposes raising the minimum wage to $10.10, and the tipped minimum wage to 70% of that over the next 5 years. We expect to see a first vote happen in the coming weeks.
At the state level, ballot initiatives and legislation is taking hold to eliminate the tipped minimum wage entirely and research pointing toward the economic benefits of raising the minimum wage keeps coming. ROC United just released data revealing that restaurant industries actually increase in employment and sales as the tipped minimum wage increases. We already know that even if restaurants passed all of the costs of raising wages onto their consumers, it would amount to a whopping extra dime-a-day in our food costs.
The main culprit behind keeping the tipped minimum wage at an abysmal $2.13 an hour is the National Restaurant Association. They are the lobby of choice for Fortune 500 restaurant corporations, like McDonald’s, KFC, and the largest full-service restaurant brand in the world, Darden (parent company to Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Capital Grille). A few days ago, the New York Times revealed the NRA’s involvement in orchestrating a high-profile statement against raising the minimum wage.
In addition to fighting minimum wage increases, they’re leading the fight against paid sick days, healthy food initiatives like nutrition labeling, gender justice issues like the Paycheck Fairness Act, and have been caught up in defending inhumane treatment of animals. In order to win an increase to the minimum wage, and worker-justice victories in the future, our elected officials need to stop taking corporate cash from the National Restaurant Association.
Maria Myotte is the National Communications Coordinator for ROC United.