Restaurant Server Wages are Going Nowhere Fast

We’re all familiar with the concept of a minimum wage, a floor set to ensure that no one is taken advantage of by an employer and everyone can still earn a livable wage despite the job they might be in. This law has a crucial sub-section however called “tipped minimum wage”, which applies to all those in the service industry who received tips for their labor in addition to an hourly wage. While the minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour, the tipped minimum wage still stands at $2.13 an hour, a rate that has no changed since 1991.

Longtime servers who have worked in restaurants for years have seen their actual income decline as the cost of living continues to rise. Waiters at more expensive restaurants in urban areas do not struggle as much and some can make an excellent living because their customers provide more than sufficient tips to subsidize their low wages. However in smaller restaurants without as much foot traffic, tips are less prevalent and waiters feel the burn of their low wages much more.

The restaurant industry is one of the few that reliably provides jobs to Americans, even throughout recessions and job crises. At present, the restaurant industry employs approximately one-tenth of the American workforce, or 13 million jobs. This large subset of the American workforce was denied an increase in minimum wage when President Clinton campaigned for an increase in 1996. Although his bill was ultimately passed, the restaurant industry led by NRA president Herman Cain pressured lawmakers to have tipped minimum wage removed from the increase and kept at $2.13 an hour.

Now the tipped minimum wage has stagnated, while everywhere else prices and wages continue to rise. While gratuities are not mandatory and are not always generous, servers now rely on them to fulfill the majority of their earnings and diners are subsidizing servers’ salaries more than ever. Servers receive no healthcare benefits or retirement savings plans, and must earn enough money themselves to afford some of these necessities.

Defenders of the tipped minimum wage at the National Restaurant Association say that servers already earn well above $7.25 per hour with the tips they make, and increasing their wages might just hurt the kitchen workers who do not have tips to fall back on. Restaurant owners argue that the wage is fair because they are legally obligated to match servers’ wages if they do not amount to the regular minimum wage. Many servers feel uncomfortable with this situation however, insecure with the status of their jobs and simply grateful to be receiving a check with any amount of money in it. The burden ultimately should not be with the servers to request their dues from their employers.

Legislative bills over restaurant wages are continuously introduced, particularly at a statewide level. While some states have mandated their own restaurant minimum wages, others have sought to lower these rates well. In Florida and Arizona two similar bills attempted to lower restaurants wages from the statewide levels, and other have limited sick leave and other employee benefits. Ultimately, awareness for servers’ wages has been extremely low, and groups like Restaurants Opportunities Center United seek to increase the national tipped minimum wage. The group’s co-directors, Saru Jayaraman says “We have to win the tipped minimum wage. It’s the greatest demonstration of the imbalance between employers and workers in this industry and the greatest outrage.”

DailyFoodtoEat is the official blog of FoodtoEat, a sustainable online food ordering and concierge catering service featuring your favorite restaurants, food trucks and caterers. Check out the deliciousness here:


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