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Most Restaurant Workers Don’t Earn Enough to Feed Their Own Families

Workers dependent on tips have to rely on food stamps and soup kitchens to survive despite working full time.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during an event to introduce the Raise the Wage Act in the Rayburn Room at the U.S. Capitol on January 16, 2019, in Washington, D.C. The proposed legislation, which will gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2024, is unlikely to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate.

When Venorica Tucker was in high school, she worked as a server in a restaurant owned by the Marriott Corporation in Washington, D.C. It was the mid-1960s and her wage was 66 cents an hour, plus tips.

Now 70 years old, Tucker currently serves food and bartends as a contractor at the U.S. House of Representatives, and while her wages have risen significantly over the past 50-plus years, she still often finds herself scrambling.

Her salary, she says, varies with the congressional calendar. “In this job, when there’s no work, there’s no pay. I had a really hard time during the government shutdown. Remember, it lasted more than a month and even though I was able to collect unemployment benefits, being without a job for so long meant that I fell behind on my bills. I’m still playing catch-up four months later.”

Tucker emphasizes that she works extremely hard and believes that she deserves to be compensated fairly and treated with respect, free from the economic exploitation and sexual harassment that are rampant in the industry. And she is not alone in voicing these basic demands.

According to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit organization and worker center that supports and connects restaurant workers throughout the country, more than 13 million U.S. residents, the majority of them women of color, are employed in restaurants. In 18 states, they earn a base pay of $2.13 an hour plus tips, a sub-minimum wage that has been frozen since 1991. Twenty-six states pay a somewhat higher sub-minimum, while just seven — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — provide the full federal minimum to those who serve our food when we dine out.

This leaves hundreds of thousands of workers in poverty; in New York City alone, a winter 2019 survey conducted by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the Community Service Society found that 36 percent of tipped workers employed in eateries, nail salons and car washes lived at or below the federal poverty line — $16,460 for a two-person household; $25,100 for four — and more often than not, had to rely on food stamps, soup kitchens and Medicaid.

New York is not an anomaly. The Economic Policy Institute found that in states that allow payment of a sub-minimum wage, 18.5 percent of workers are impoverished; in states where everyone earns the federal minimum, the poverty rate drops to 11.1 percent. Furthermore, the institute notes that closing the loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that allows payment of a sub-minimum wage, and upping the hourly minimum to $15 by 2024, would boost the wages of 38.1 percent of African American and 23.2 percent of white workers.

Support for the Raise the Wage Act

This is why Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is supporting the Raise the Wage Act, H.R.582, legislation to abolish the sub-minimum wage and bring tipped workers up to the federal standard. The bill was introduced by Bobby Scott (D-Virginia); a Senate companion bill, S.150, was introduced by Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is also supporting state efforts to enact what they are calling One Fair Wage laws.

Anthony Advincula, public affairs officer at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, notes that 16 states are presently considering One Fair Wage bills, but emphasizes that opposition from the National Restaurant Association — dubbed “the other NRA” — has been fierce.

“If passed, H.R.582 would stifle new job creation, impose undue harm to the nation’s small business owners, and harm those it proclaims to help,” National Restaurant Association spokeswoman Mollie O’Dell wrote in an email to Truthout.

Not surprisingly, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United disagrees. “They’ve created a fake grassroots organization, called Restaurant Workers of America, to invoke fear that restaurants will close and jobs will be eliminated,” Advincula says. “The truth is that the association does not want to eliminate the sub-minimum wage because it will cost them. But this is a racial and gender justice issue. The majority of workers who are exploited by the sub-minimum wage are immigrants, people of color and single mothers who live in poverty despite working full-time.”

Furthermore, an in-depth investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review confirms that Restaurant Workers of America is wholly funded by restaurant owners. In addition, the investigation found that its representatives have missed few opportunities to appear with “restaurant industry trade groups and Republican politicians” since coming together in 2017.

That said, the National Restaurant Association and Restaurant Workers of America have been effective in undermining One Fair Wage campaigns in New York, Michigan and Washington, D.C.

In New York, Advincula says, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has the authority to instruct the commissioner of labor to end the sub-minimum wage — something he said he intended to do. Seven hearings on this issue were held in different parts of the state between April and June 2018. “Everything was set in motion to make this change but Cuomo has not fulfilled his promise,” Advincula reports. “The issue seems stalled. We have contacted the governor again and again to say that he should listen to the majority of restaurant workers. Instead, he has listened to the Restaurant Workers of America and the National Restaurant Association. Their campaign has been appalling. It’s obscene to hear restaurant workers argue that no, they don’t need an increase in the minimum wage, that things are fine as they are. We assume that this is why Cuomo has backed off on his pledge to abolish the sub-minimum [wage].”

Diana Ramirez is the senior policy advocate at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, but, until recently, she led the Washington, D.C., chapter of the organization and coordinated last year’s ballot initiative to bring One Fair Wage to the District of Columbia. As the campaign unfolded, the D.C. chapter of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United zeroed in on endemic, industry-wide sexual exploitation — as well as the inadequate base pay — since workers whose wages rely on tips often feel silenced when it comes to fighting back against predatory behavior. “The rate of sexual harassment for restaurant workers is the highest of any industry,” she says. “The ‘customer is always right’ mentality has made it hard for tipped workers who have to depend on the generosity of patrons.”

A broad coalition of women’s rights, labor and racial justice groups came together in 2016 in support of One Fair Wage — coalition members ranged from the D.C. chapter of the National Organization for Women, to Forward Together, the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, the Democratic Socialists of America, and Jews United For Justice. The goal was to put a One Fair Wage measure — called Initiative 77 — on the July 2018 ballot.

Opposition from the Restaurant Workers of America and the National Restaurant Association was immediate. “They got workers, mostly white male bartenders working in high-end establishments, to come out and yell at women of color wherever we went,” Ramirez told Truthout. “It’s a Trumpian effect: Somehow you doing better will make me worse off.”

Ignoring the Community’s Desires

Despite the pushback, the ballot initiative in Washington, D.C., passed with 56 percent of the vote, and voters in all but one neighborhood supported One Fair Wage. But the victory was short-lived. Ramirez points out that after the ballot measure passed, the restaurant association went into high gear and successfully lobbied the D.C. City Council to overturn the measure.

“The Council essentially told Black people, the majority population in D.C., that their vote did not matter,” Ramirez explains. “People were outraged and after the vote was repealed, an influx of racial justice and pro-democracy groups came to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and said, ‘We want to work with you to protect democracy.’”

A referendum on this is now before the courts. “It can take a year, until late 2019 or early 2020,” Ramirez says, “but this is not something we’re going to drop. We’re continuing to organize for One Fair Wage. It’s the future of the restaurant industry, whether they like it or not.”

A similar fight is unfolding in Michigan. “Most Michiganders in the restaurant industry — tipped and non-tipped — earn less than $12 an hour,” Deputy Director Alicia Farris from the Michigan branch of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United begins. “We’re talking about parents and kids. Since we know that kids growing up in poverty start out at a deficit, we worked hard to get One Fair Wage on the 2018 ballot.” Farris says that Restaurant Opportunities Centers United mobilized hundreds of volunteers to collect the 253,000 signatures required by the Board of State Canvassers and despite a challenge from the National Restaurant Association, they got the go-ahead to bring the issue to Michigan’s voters.

Then something unexpected happened. On September 5, 2018, the state legislature passed One Fair Wage. “The lame duck session began the day after Election Day and ended right before Christmas,” Farris says. “It turned out that the legislature had passed [One Fair Wage] in order to gut it.” According to the Michigan chapter of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the lame duck session voted to raise the state’s overall minimum incrementally, not getting to $12.05 an hour until 2030. Their raise to the sub-minimum was even paltrier: They raised it by seven cents an hour, from $3.52 to $3.59, effective March 29 of this year. The original measure raised the sub-minimum from $3.52 to $12 by 2024.

An editorial in USA Today elaborates further: “Faced with ballot initiatives that would have raised the minimum wage and established sick time for all the state’s workers, Republicans instead passed both proposals last summer as a way to keep them off the ballot and make them easier to change.”

The courts are presently considering whether a 1964 opinion barring the legislature from “amend[ing] a citizen-initiated proposal in the same legislative session” will hold sway.

Meanwhile, Farris says that members of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United are continuing to speak to legislators, doing Get Out the Vote work and educating the community about the legislative process. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what lame duck means,” she says, noting that because many restaurant workers have little time to research political policy in depth, the organizing challenge is enormous. “People get scared when someone persuasive comes along and tells them that ending the sub-minimum wage will lead to job losses,” she adds. But this is why the Michigan chapter of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is working overtime to counter the misinformation being pushed by astroturf groups like the Restaurant Workers of America.

Workers Continue to Be Exploited

Meanwhile, the majority of tipped restaurant workers continue to face economic insecurity. Trupti Patel has been a Washington, D.C.-area server for the past nine years. “Most restaurant managers in the U.S. are white men,” Patel says. “If they feel miffed by you, or if you did not jump when they flirted, you can end up with crappy shifts or a station that does not get much traffic.” Patel believes that abolition of the sub-minimum wage will reduce this dynamic. “The income in restaurant work fluctuates; it is not stable but our bills are a constant,” she continues. “The U.S. is the only country in the world where hospitality is not considered a profession. I do not get health insurance even though I work full-time. I pay $423 a month out of pocket for it. Workers in non-tipped industries have predictable pay, retirement benefits, health insurance and paid time off. This is rarely offered in the hospitality trade.”

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