The Shriver Report – Tipped Over the Edge: Women in the U.S. Restaurant Industry
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Tipped Over the Edge: Women in the U.S. Restaurant Industry

If you have a daughter, pay attention: more likely than not she will work in the restaurant industry at some point in her life. Millions of young women in America find their first job waiting tables in restaurants, living on the largesse of customers’ tips. So many young women start their work lives in an environment in which they can be paid hardly at all and touched and talked to in any number of inappropriate ways. Many of them stay in this environment for a lifetime.

“With more than 10 million workers, the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy; it is also the absolute lowest-paying. Six of the ten lowest-paying jobs in the US – and the two absolute lowest-paying – are restaurant jobs.”

With more than 10 million workers, the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy; it is also the absolute lowest-paying. Six of the ten lowest-paying jobs in the US – and the two absolute lowest-paying – are restaurant jobs.

The fact that this profitable and growing industry pays the nation’s lowest wages is not inherent to the sector; it is due to the power and influence of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which is led by the nation’s fortune 500 restaurant corporations and has been named one of the top lobbying groups in Congress.

In 1996, under the leadership of Herman Cain of Republican nomination infamy, the NRA struck a deal with Congress, allowing the overall minimum wage to increase as long as the minimum wage for tipped workers stayed frozen forever. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has thus remained stagnant at $2.13 an hour for the last 22 years.

“70% of tipped workers in America are women who work at chains like Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and IHOP”

The NRA dismisses this fact, describing tipped workers to be wealthy fine dining servers in major cities – usually depicting a male earning near or above six figures. The truth is that 70% of tipped workers in America are women who work at chains like Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and IHOP.

 “Servers use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce, and are three times as likely to live in poverty.”

Restaurant servers are three times as likely to live in poverty and use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the US workforce. In a terrible irony, the women who put food on the tables of restaurant-goers everywhere are struggling to put it on their own.

When your only hourly guaranteed wage is $2.13, you live off tips. In fact, one of our members, Rita, told us about the challenges of depending on tips for the majority of your income.

“I was a server for 15 years and raised four kids on a server’s wages plus tips. Depending on other people to tip you can be the most stressful part of being a server. There were many nights that I didn’t even make enough to pay my babysitter. 1

Depending on tips means you’re often at the mercy of customers — calling them out on verbal or physical harassment usually means your tips are going to take a direct hit.  And when a couple more tables means the difference between paying the babysitter that night or making the rent that month, interactions that are otherwise generally unacceptable are routinely ignored (and/or begrudgingly tolerated) for the sake of making ends meet.

As another woman explained, “I just feel like in the restaurant industry [sexual harassment] is more overt, it’s more accepted, it’s part of the culture.”

Another worker said, “It’s inevitable. If it’s not verbal assault, someone wants to rub up against you. I mean, there is innocent brushing and there is not innocent brushing.”

“The restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment charges filed by women with the EEOC, accounting for 37 percent of all claims.”

In fact, several women with whom we spoke had experienced so much harassment that they no longer felt shocked when it occurred. Unsurprisingly, the Equal Opportunity Commission has targeted the restaurant industry has the “single largest” source of sexual harassment claims; 37% of all sexual harassment charges filed by women with the EEOC come from the restaurant industry, which is more than 5 times the rate of the general female workforce.

“There are 2 million mothers working in restaurants; 1 million are single mothers with children under the age of 18.”

These women are increasingly mothers and breadwinners. Almost 2 million restaurant workers are mothers—15 percent of employees in the industry. More than half of them – 1.2 million – are single mothers with children in the household. More than 1 million are single moms with children under age 18.

Fortunately, there is a growing movement of restaurant workers and their allies demanding change from the industry; the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, introduced by Democratic leadership this year, includes a significant increase for tipped workers for the first time in two decades. If passed, millions would be lifted from poverty. There are three things every diner can do to support this movement:

First, tell everyone you know to read our book, Behind The Kitchen Door.

Second, check out our consumer-engagement campaign, The Welcome Table, to sign a petition calling on Congress to raise the wage for women earning the tipped minimum wage

Third, speak up wherever you eat out – in the same way that we have asked ‘is this locally-sourced; is this organic?’ over the last few decades, we are asking everyone who cares about women in this industry to speak to the manager or owner at the end of your meal, and encourage them to pay a livable wage. To make that a bit easier, we’ve just released our 3rd Diners Guide to Ethical Eating.

Finally, for any woman who has worked in this industry (which we know are a lot of you), share your story at livingofftips.com. Through sharing these stories, we’re educating the public about who tipped workers are, and creating a groundswell of support crucial to raising the tipped minimum wage for the first time in 22 years.

1 – Rita , Indian rock Beach, Florida

Saru Jayaraman is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Saru Jayaraman is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), Director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley and Co-Founder of the consumer engagement campaign, The Welcome Table. She authored Behind the Kitchen Door, a groundbreaking exploration of the political, economic, and moral implications of dining out (Cornell University Press, 2013).
Also from Saru Jayaraman:
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