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Underpaid by Law – A Waitress's Story

Roc20 Report

The author, who struggles to pay her bills serving tables while launching her career as a journalist, describes the day to day results of the federally mandated subminimum wage.

I became a waitress in January 2009. The general manager of a restaurant and bar hired me because I seemed friendly, and had a cute smile. My trainer assured me I’d make good tips—because I’m friendly and have a cute smile.

My raised feminist consciousness ignored the comments. (A women’s studies and journalism double major earned me at least that, if not a decent-paying job.) I started on a weekend night and made $100 in five hours.

“Twenty dollars an hour,” I thought. “That’s the most money I’ve ever made.”

Then I worked my first weekday morning shift. Tips brought me $10 in five hours. Even with the added $3.65 an hour allocated by Ohio at the time as the minimum for tipped employees, I made well below minimum wage for other workers.

I’d like to tell those who tip below 20 percent about a study released in February 2012 by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) and several national women’s organizations, titled Tipped Over the Edge: Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry. The report explains that servers experience three times the poverty rate of the American workforce and use food stamps at almost twice the rate of the general population.

Plus, 71 percent of those servers are women. Where I work, only nine of the 45 servers and bartenders have been male. Usually, gender wage gaps are created by employer discrimination. But a decreased minimum wage for tipped workers is federal law. As 68 percent of all tipped workers are female, the gender wage gap in the restaurant industry is federally mandated.

Tipped workers’ minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13 an hour for the past two decades. (Those states, like Ohio, that exceed the minimum add only about $1.60 on average.) Meanwhile, federal minimum wage for non-tipped workers, unlike servers’ subminimum wage, has increased to $7.25. If tips don't cover the $5.12 gap, employers are supposed to make up the difference, but according to the ROC-United report, "employers frequently ignore this requirement." 

Women typically cover quick-serve and family style establishments, not the high paying, fine dining sector where men serve, or high paying chef positions. Women like me, serving $4 burger specials and $1 beer specials to parties who leave tips as low as a buck.

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said industries subconsciously perpetuate sexual segregation, which pigeonholes women as second class citizens. (Think of the sex of hotel employees: the cleaning staff verses the valets; or gyms: the cardio section verses the weightlifting.) “For decades, employers have devalued the work women do with less pay and opportunities for growth,” said O’Neill.

Jane Geottsch, the director of the Women's Center at Miami University of Ohio (my alma mater), said hiring managers are socialized to view women as nurturing and supportive—perfect attributes for a server. And they see women servers as a way to bring in male customers, who can also be induced to increase tip levels.

A 2009 study by the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that women with self-reported larger breast sizes were tipped higher than others. Another 2010 study by the International Journal of Hospitality Management reported that waitresses who wore makeup received higher tips.

Geottsch experienced such struggles at her first job, serving at a college cafe. “There is pressure to play up to men who are looking to be flirty and you think, ‘Gee, should I do that?’” she said.

Perhaps it’s this environment of selling sex for tips that generated the ROC-United’s findings on harassment. Of all female-filed sexual harassment charges to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from January to November 2011, 37 percent were from the restaurant industry.

I feel it too. Like when I was told my looks would help earn money, or when I was applauded for buying the optional skirt uniform, or when a cook grabbed my rear, then, after I complained to management, refused to prepare the food I ordered.

Servers who work overtime at restaurants are often punished with fewer shifts the following week. As a result servers may, as I do, try to avoid incurring overtime by not clocking in at first, essentially working for free until receiving customers.

Katelyn Buhrlage, a server for four years, was told by management to do just that, and was warned that overtime would be extracted from her paycheck. “It’s a joke to not be paid for the hours you work, but I can’t afford to lose a shift,” said Buhrlage, who also works part-time at a hospital and has not found fulltime work since last year when she graduated college.
Buhrlage and I are part of the 90 percent of restaurant employees who are not offered health benefits, as reported by the ROC-United—leaving pregnant servers, like Buhrlage, to rely on Medicaid both before and after the birth. The 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) would cover servers like us, under a state-issued Medicaid expansion for those who make around $15,000 or less for a single adult. Those who earn more, and still cannot afford insurance, would be eligible for government tax credits to pay the difference.

Businesses with more than 50 employees must offer insurance by 2014 under the ACA. But some restaurant chains have already been busy finding loopholes. Like Papa John’s founder John Schnatter and Applebee’s franchise owner Zane Tankel, who vowed to reduce workers’ hours to reach below the insurance cutoff. John Mertz, whose Florida restaurant corporation operates Denny’s and Dairy Queen franchises, said he would add a 5 percent surcharge to customer bills to cover the cost of health insurance. According to the Health and Human Services Department, only about 0.2 percent of U.S. businesses would be forced to offer such insurance, as 96 percent have fewer than 50 employees, and most larger companies already offer health benefits.

Single mother and server Amber Harrison was deemed “lazy” by her restaurant manager for using Medicaid to cover her 1-year old’s insurance. “When he said that, tears started to well in my eyes and I wanted to quit, but I knew I couldn’t afford to,” said the 23-year old, who finishes her medical assistant degree next fall.

So, why do we stay if serving leaves us vulnerable for sexual harassment and provides little pay and no benefits? Is our complacency our own demise? Not according to O’Neill. “Women are distressed and displaced,” she said, “but mostly powerless.”

With only 17 percent of Congress comprised of women, O’Neill said women’s second class citizenship is prolonged by underrepresentation. Two bills to increase federal minimum wage for tipped workers introduced last winter have failed to make progress.

While my yet-to-be-paid-for education helped me to recognize job discrimination, it took four years of living as a poverty-stricken, female statistic for it to sink in. Yet, how can a feminist be blind to her own discrimination, until a report confirms what she has felt for years?

“If we knew the answer,” said O’Neill, “we could change reality.”

Two bills to increase federal minimum wage were introduced to Congress, last winter.
• Working for Adequate Gains for Employment in Services Act (“WAGES Act,” H.R. 631): Representative Donna Edwards of Maryland introduced this bill to the House of Representatives, last February, to gradually increase tipped workers’ minimum wage to 70 percent of the current minimum wage (or a $5.50 minimum) over two years.
• Rebuild America Act (S. 2252): Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa introduced amendments to this act, last March, to gradually increase minimum wage to $9.80 over a three-year period, as well as the tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of that federal minimum. An October 2012 report of the bill by the University of California, Davis and Berkeley, demonstrated that restaurant food costs would not rise in proportion to a minimum wage hike. Food prices would increase less than a half percent, costing American households an extra dime a day, while tipped worker wages would double.

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