Exploitation on the menu?

By Ana Maria Rivera-Forastieri, Age 27

A few years ago someone told me that Connecticut had raised the minimum wage but that tipped workers were excluded from this raise. I must confess that I was confused at first, how could they be excluded? Were they carved out of the minimum wage law? Well, yes they were. But I also quickly learned that tipped workers have had their own “special” category for years and they do not get paid the minimum wage. Rather, they are paid a lower wage ($5.78) that is supposed to be supplemented by the tips that they earn. When you leave a tip at a restaurant, you are providing a subsidy to the restaurant owners that allows them to pay their workforce very low wages. I was disgusted. All these years I naively thought that a tip was just additional income for servers and bartenders. I have never had a job in the restaurant industry so this thought never even crossed my mind. I will spare you the details about how terribly ignorant I felt.

In a quest to extinguish my ignorance I started researching the industry and I ended up feeling worse. Other than the fact that it is morally reprehensible that we are excluding certain workers from the minimum wage, which in itself is not even enough to survive in this state, I found that the tipped wage system is legislated pay inequity. The restaurant industry employs about 11 million workers and is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy—this is true for Connecticut’s restaurant industry as well. Despite this growth, tipped workers across the United States are more than twice as likely to fall under the federal poverty line and three times as likely to rely on food stamps than the average worker. But who makes up most of the tipped worker workforce? Women, of course! Women make up two-thirds of all tipped restaurant workers. That is INSANE. I call it legislated pay inequity because one of the only industries that is allowed to pay its workers less than the minimum wage is made up of mostly women. And let’s be real, unless you work at a fancy restaurant with pricey menu items, you are not bringing home a large paycheck. The average server in Connecticut makes a little over $9 an hour.

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But the problems don’t stop there. Not that long ago I was at a conference in DC where two brave women shared their story. Both of them were mothers who had worked in the industry for several years and were still barely making the minimum wage. Because their employers did not pay them the minimum wage, they felt that they had to allow certain customers to sexually harass them just to earn those couple of extra dollars that may allow them to put food on the table for their loved ones. My heart was heavy for these women because they are forced to rely on the “generosity” of customers to make a living and that just puts anyone in a precarious situation. Unfortunately, their stories are not isolated. There is hard data that sexual harassment in rampant in the restaurant industry. The Restaurant Opportunities Center reports that while 7% of American women work in the industry, over 37% of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry.  I have no doubt that there is a correlation between tips and sexual harassment.

Word on the street is that more and more industries want to start classifying their workers as tipped workers, including nail salon workers! Let’s not be ignorant, let’s not look the other way. We must get rid of the tipped wage system.

Young Women Rising encourages Connecticut women ages 18-35 to raise their voices about issues they care about. Each writer speaks for herself as an individual and Young Women Rising as a whole does not intend to endorse the views of any particular writer. If you’re interested in submitting a guest piece please contact us at Michelle.Noehren@cga.ct.gov.

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