Tipping the Jar: A Look at Restaurant Wages and Resistance

by Gen Rollins

Saru Jayaraman, an intersectional activist for restaurant workers rights, the director of the Food Labor Research Center, and Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), spoke at the 2017 Good Food For All Conference to tackle this hole in food justice resistance. Jayaraman made a point to express that ROC was not created by her alone, but rather in alliance with displaced 9/11 workers and former chief server at the World Trade Center restaurant, Windows on the World, Fekkak Mamdouh. Their One Fair Wage campaign hopes to meet restaurant workers with a liveable wage that re-establishes their value in our food systems.

As in any movement, there has been backlash and support from either end of the spectrum in reaching One Fair Wage. Some consumers and restaurant workers are greatly resistant to the idea of raising restaurant wages, backed up by a belief that serving is a job funded by society, and a fear and skepticism that higher wages will cause a price increase in restaurant foods. This backlash has not come solely from those in power positions, but also from the workers themselves. There is a comfort in going home with cash in your pocket, and a familiarity in the restaurant business to being subsidized by your customer base for your services. This leaves many servers fearful that a raise in wages will take away from a customer’s desire to tip well.

Saru cites the state of Maine to quell the fears of restaurant workers in the fight for One Fair Wage. Maine has made the commitment to raise the legal minimum wage for tipped workers by $1 every year, through 2024. This will hopefully combat the illusive “tip credit” rule, that allows employers to take a portion of tipped workers’ wages, so long as the employee makes at least $30 in tips per month. Ideally, but seldom in reality, this would balance tipped worker’s pay to equal the state minimum wage of non-tipped workers. In our current national status, federal minimum wage for tipped workers is set at $2.13, indefinitely, and rarely does that mean fair working conditions for tipped workers. To move this legislation, legal action needs to happen on a state-by-state level.

There is a hopeful ray on what we can expect if we do uplift the wage laws. Alaska, one of the seven U.S. states to have created equal wages for tipped and non-tipped workers, holds the highest average dollar amount in tipping out of any of this country’s 50 states. The restaurant industry is thriving there, as both diners and food service workers rush to enjoy the experience of a balanced work environment. The goal of Jayaraman's work is to meet people at their needs, and value tipped workers as human lives deserving of health, security, and choice.

This issue is particularly important for women, who make up 66% of the tipped wage workforce. The ROC offers some insight into this issue, stating, “The industry follows a conscious business model of confining women to the lower-paid positions within restaurants...such as quick-serve and family style rather than the highest-paying fine dining segment...even within the same job classification of server, full-time, year-round female servers are paid just 68 percent of what male servers are paid ($17,000 vs. $25,000 annually).” As Saru plainly stated at Good Food For All, this disparity means that a woman's ability to make a living wage depends on how grabbable she is, how much harassment she is willing to take, and her general appearance. Providing a fair wage means that women in the food service industry gain relief from dependence on the wants of tippers, and that their lives no longer revolve around a legally sanctioned vulnerability to predation. To take action in support of tipped workers, ROC offers many solutions for employers, employees, and general community members. Lookout for state budgets addressing issues of wage, as we move towards bridging the gaps in our food systems and communities.