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When Tips Are Not Enough

Eleanor J. Bader May 3, 2014

As fast-food and low-wage workers nationwide fight for an increase in the minimum wage, many of New York’s restaurant workers don’t receive anything close to that amount. The reason? Lobbying by restaurant owners.

According to the website of the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA) — one of 50 chapters of the National Restaurant Association, a 95-year-old trade group dedicated to fighting “financial and regulatory obstacles before they hit our members’ bottom line” — one of last year’s premier accomplishments was keeping 200,000 tipped city restaurant employees stuck at the same $5 per hour subminimum wage they’ve been earning since 2011.

Rahul Saksena, policy director at the Restaurant Opportunity Center of New York (ROC-NY), a Manhattan-based organization that advocates for improved salaries and working conditions for laborers in the city’s approximately 24,000 eateries, explains that the subminimum wage has been in effect since 1966. He told The Indypendent that, “nationally, the tipped wage has remained at its 1991 level, $2.13 an hour, for 23 years.”

Yes, you read that correctly. In most of the United States, tipped restaurant workers — servers, bussers, bartenders and food runners — make just $2.13 an hour. Seven states, however, have no subminimum. This means that by virtue of geography, restaurant staffers in Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington earn a higher base pay — their state’s minimum hourly wage — than their brothers and sisters in the rest of the nation.

In New York, tipped restaurant workers — largely servers, since cooks, chefs, dishwashers and other “back of the house” staff are typically paid more — earn the local minimum, a paltry 62.5 percent of the state’s $8 minimum, or $5 an hour. This discrepancy disproportionately impacts women, since 73 percent of tipped restaurant employees are female. “The economic security of workers should be a fundamental right,” Saksena said. “Most customers who eat out leave a tip to thank their server for good service. They don’t realize that they’re actually subsidizing a wage. Having to rely on the generosity of patrons adds a major level of stress to the job. We know that tips vary by season, by weather, by restaurant location, by the hours you work.”

Saksena’s outrage becomes more and more pronounced as he explains that state restaurant associations typically describe their employees as temporary workers — students, actors, writers and artists who are hoping to catch a break or finish school. “It’s a myth that this is a short-term job,” he adds. “For many, many people restaurant work is a career.”

Indeed, ROC estimates that 13 million people in the United States — 10 percent of the labor force — work in some aspect of food service. What’s more, the National Restaurant Association projects overall sales of $683.4 billion in 2014. Closer to home, the NYSRA reports that the industry took in a whopping $33.6 billion in 2013 alone.

“As tipped workers, our minimum wage should be at least $8 an hour,” says waitress Ayana Edwards.

Edwards has worked at the International House of Pancakes in East New York for four years. “The labor of being a waitress is very hard and dealing with the public is not easy. In addition to serving people, we also have all the back of the house cleaning to do.”

Naomi Benn, who has worked with Edwards for three years, explains that at their workplace, servers need to pay 15 percent of their gross sales to the busboys who clean the tables and restock supplies. In turn, the busboys tip the dishwashers. “On an average day, working from 7 am to 5 pm, I take home about $100,” Benn reports. “Most people leave me 15 percent of the bill.”

Standing on her feet and keeping a smile on her face as she fills her orders is an expected part of the job, Benn adds. But she has also had to contend with sexual harassment from patrons. “When you’re friendly with male customers it can come off as flirtatious even when that’s not your intention. I’ve had guys waiting for me when I get out so our shift now leaves as a group, or we call cabs so that they’re outside when we leave.”

Some restaurant workers, like Camilo (who asked that his surname not be used), say that they have fewer complaints about their employers than they have about customers. Camilo has waited tables at two different Manhattan-based vegan restaurants since August 2013 and says that his bosses are not a problem.

“Both places are owned by the same people and they are themselves vegan. How they think about animals and eating is reflected in how well their employees are treated,” he begins.

“We share our tips with everyone on the floor except the host or hostess and the person who prepares take-out and delivery orders. They’re paid between $10 and $13 an hour. A shift ranges from four to eight hours; if you work eight you get one paid 30-minute break. We’re also given a $20 allowance for food per meal. Last Saturday I worked seven-and-a-half hours and took home $182 in tips. On Thursday, I got $130-something for eight hours.”

And the customers? “Some people are obnoxious,” he shrugs. “One of my coworkers served a salad to a woman who said she didn’t like it. When she was told that she had to pay since she’d eaten most of it, she took the fake ham from the plate and threw it at the server. Two weeks ago I had a customer who asked me about non-soy entrees but never said she had a soy allergy. She ordered something that had soy puree in it and when she discovered this she made a scene.”

An increase in the subminimum wage, of course, would do nothing to mitigate this.

For its part, ROC-NY recognizes that there is a burning need to address the disrespect that restaurant workers experience. To start, ROC-NY is promoting discussions about what fair treatment for workers really means. Even on a small scale, Saksena says that this can have a transformative impact on diners and can improve relations between the server and served.

Workers in hotel restaurants face different pressures, says server Carolina Portillo. A native of El Salvador, Portillo has worked in the restaurant industry for seven years and dreams of becoming a chef. “My hotel is slow during breakfast and lunch so they pay us $10 an hour and give us meals. They know no one would stay in the job otherwise. Those who work dinner or brunch earn $5 an hour because it’s busier.

“We give our tips to management at the end of the day and we’re then paid once a week by check. We sometimes suspect that management is keeping something or that some servers are not turning everything over but there’s no way to find out. The big issue is that the pay is not steady. Some weeks it’s $300, some weeks more, some less. Unlike other jobs there’s no paid vacation and until recently there was no sick time.”

Like the other servers interviewed, Portillo has seen her share of disgruntled patrons. Another concern, she continues, is scheduling. “Some weeks if I’m only given three shifts, I’ll need to borrow money to make ends meet. It’s frustrating and does not have to be this way. If more people get involved we can change things.”

At the top of the list, of course, is upping — or better, eliminating — the subminimum wage. ROC-NY’s Saksena says that San Francisco, California, and SeaTac, Washington, have eliminated the subminimum and have increased the minimum to $10.88 and $15 respectively, a clear boon for tipped employees who now make the local minimum.

New York State, for its part, recently passed a minimum wage increase that will see the minimum rise to $9 an hour in 2015, but that law excluded tipped workers. Gov. Cuomo is due to convene a wage board to investigate the issue. However, despite pressure from ROC-NY and the Coalition for a Real Minimum Wage, he has been dragging his feet.

“We’re now videotaping restaurant workers in the city, asking them to describe what it’s like to work off tips. Our goal is to shift public discourse and pressure Governor Cuomo to address the subminimum wage,” Saksena says. “The fact that, on a national level, food service workers are twice as likely as other workers to qualify for food stamps is disturbing.”