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Restaurant workers who make the federal minimum wage for tipped workers are pretty well screwed: That minimum wage is just $2.13 an hour, the theory being that tips will be enough for these workers to get by. When tips don't bring workers up to the full federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, their employers are supposed to make up the difference, but in practice, that's an invitation for bosses to pressure workers to just accept below-minimum wages. That's not the only abuse of this rock-bottom minimum wage, though, and as a new report from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United shows, these abuses and high poverty rates fall most heavily on women.

The statistics pile on top of each other in creating the picture of just how badly women in the restaurant industry have it:

  • "The median wage for restaurant workers in 2010 was $9.02, meaning that well over half of these workers earned less than the wage of $10.75 that a family of four needs to remain out of poverty."
  • Almost half of all workers making below minimum wage are restaurant workers; 19 percent of restaurant workers earn less than minimum wage.
  • Five of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the country are tipped restaurant jobs.
  • Women are 52 percent of all restaurant workers, but 66 percent of all tipped workers in restaurants and 71 percent of servers. That means that women are far more likely to face the uncertainty and poverty of tipped work.
  • "The typical full-time, year-round female server is paid just 68 percent of what her male counterpart is paid ($17,000 vs. $25,000 annually)." This disparity is in part because women are concentrated in the kinds of restaurants that pay less, while men are more likely to work in fine dining restaurants.

Basically, the restaurant industry is taking an abysmally low base wage, adding in employers who pressure workers not to demand their legal right to make at least the full minimum wage, and crowding women into the lowest-paying occupations and sectors of the industry. Few restaurant workers have either paid sick days or employer-provided health insurance, of course. As well, at slow times, restaurants may send home workers who earn the full minimum wage or above, keeping servers who are only paid $2.13 an hour to staff the restaurant, as one woman profiled in the report experienced:

One night, Claudia was one of three servers on a slow night. Claudia was told to roll silverware into napkins for two hours straight, not taking any customers except for one table. Claudia knew she wouldn’t make any tips, and she’d still be asked to report that she made the minimum wage in tips. Meaning, with taxes, she’d have worked for free. After two hours, Claudia approached the manager, saying, “I’m done with the silverware, and other servers are getting tables. Can I serve a table now?” The manager berated Claudia on the dining floor. She told her to punch out and go home, and to tell her table that someone else would serve them.
Women in the restaurant industry also frequently face sexual harassment:
More than one in ten of the more than 4,300 restaurant workers ROC-United surveyed nationwide reported that they or a co-worker had experienced sexual harassment in their restaurant.100 This figure is very likely an undercount. A recent MSNBC review of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) data revealed that from January to November 2011, almost 37 percent of all EEOC charges by women regarding sexual harassment came from the restaurant industry, even though less than 7 percent of women work in the restaurant industry.
server poverty

The full minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is already too low, and doesn't protect workers from sexual harassment or a range of abuses, including the practice, common in retail as well, of not giving workers more than a day or two of notice on their work schedules, or calling them in to work only to send them home almost immediately. But increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers would be an important step: Some states have eliminated the subminimum wage for tipped workers, calling for these workers to be paid the basic minimum wage. These states have the same overall poverty rate as states that use the federal rate—6.7 percent—but "Servers in states that follow the federal subminimum wage have a poverty rate 43 percent higher than in states without," 19.4 percent to 13.6 percent. Even raising the wage for tipped workers to 70 percent of the federal minimum wage would make an enormous difference for many. The federal government should also follow the lead of states that have instituted "show-up" pay requirements, so that employers have a disincentive to call workers in and then send them home quickly.

And between now and whatever far-off day when those much-needed laws are passed, the government should enforce the laws that are already in place, rather than letting employers get away with intimidating workers into accepting less than they are legally entitled to.

Mon Feb 20, 2012 at 9:50 AM PT: Take action: Tell Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker John Boehner, and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to reduce poverty among restaurant workers by eliminating the subminimum wage, instituting "show up" requirements, and enforcing existing laws to protect tipped workers.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Sun Feb 19, 2012 at 06:55 PM PST.

Also republished by South Dakota Kos, In Support of Labor and Unions, Invisible People, ClassWarfare Newsletter: WallStreet VS Working Class Global Occupy movement, Progressive Hippie, and Daily Kos.

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