Editor’s Note: James Cox worked her way up from diners to fine dining establishments. A six-year resident of Oakland, CA, she is a lead server at Copper Spoon – the “Best New Restaurant in Oakland” in the “Best of 2018” by the East Bay Express. James is also an artist and community activist, engaging on immigration, gender equality, racial justice, and labor issues. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
How many of us have careers in which our perceived value and take-home pay fluctuate from hour to hour, day to day, and are dependent solely on the kindness of strangers whom we will probably never see again? This is the reality for the majority of tipped workers (employees who customarily and regularly receive more than $30 per month in tips, according to the US Department of Labor) in the hospitality industry.
Tipped workers are forced to accept that their worth and performance are being assessed by customers rather than by the employers who hire them and cut their checks.
The new “Tip the Bill” challenge – encouraging customers to leave the total amount of their bill as gratuity – that’s been growing on social media this year has aimed to show how crucial tips are to those in the industry whose employers don’t pay a living wage. It’s helped to make clear that instead of tipping from a standpoint of superiority or power, customers should do it in a way that makes them allies in the fight to achieve fairer treatment for tipped workers.
I have been in the service industry for more than 15 years, occupying every position one can hold in the “front of the house” – from bussing, to serving and bartending, to managing. I recently moved to California, which – along with Alaska, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington – pays tipped workers the full minimum wage.
But most states have a two-tiered minimum wage system, where tipped workers have a lower minimum wage than nontipped workers. Some states – like Texas – set minimum wages for tipped workers at the lowest level mandated by the federal government – $2.13 an hour.
When I earned a sub-minimum tipped wage, I struggled to earn enough in tips to supplement a nonexistent paycheck. For years I waited tables and my checks would literally read $0.00 after deductions. As a server in Oakland, I no longer have to live off tips alone. I am 32 years old and this is my first time receiving a steady, reliable paycheck every two weeks. For a single mom with a three-year-old daughter, it makes all the difference.
Diners can help tipped workers struggling to make ends meet by letting restaurant owners know – through Yelp or OpenTable reviews, for example, or by talking directly to the restaurant owners – that fair wages, paid sick days, and access to promotions are important to you as a consumer.
Encourage them to join other restaurants nationwide that are taking the “high road to profitability,” and to support One Fair Wage – a campaign that advocates for the same full minimum wage for all tipped and nontipped workers (I volunteer for this campaign myself, appearing at community meetings and before lawmakers, to explain what living off tips means). Spend your money with businesses that take care of their workers and have diverse workplaces.
Until we are treated as true professionals and are paid professional wages, with benefits as the norm, tipping continues to be necessary. When possible, tip in cash at 20% of your pre-tax restaurant or bar bill. While it is illegal for employers to pocket tips, wage theft does happen. It’s easier for unscrupulous employers to skim tips from credit card payments than from cash directly in someone’s pocket.
And for women of color like me, who make up 21% of the restaurant industry, this is especially important because we are paid some of the lowest wages. For example, in California, where I work, women of color only make 71% of what white men earn in the restaurant industry, according to a 2015 report by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.
Raising the tipped wage to the full minimum wage across all states is not just a matter of economic justice, but also one of gender and racial equity. So, until the restaurant industry is fully equitable, tip your servers and bartenders extra if they are women of color, because others will likely tip way less.
Also, people need to understand that it is common practice for servers to share tips with other support staff – the dishwashers, bussers, hosts, bartenders, and others who all contribute to a pleasant dining experience. So when the bill comes and it’s time to tip, round up – not down – when you can.
If you received poor service, punishing your server by refusing to tip will not necessarily correct the problem. Too often, the issue is outside of the server’s control: an understaffed front of the house or kitchen, poor management, or a myriad of other business decisions can lead to a perception of inadequate service.
Being a generous tipper is one way to be an ally of the restaurant workers, but the more people understand the reality of living on a server’s wages, the more likely we are to transform the industry’s wage policies.
For example, when I moved to a new city with a job as a server, it was extremely stressful – really, next to impossible – to find housing. Landlords do not see tips as provable or stable income, and a check that reads $0.00 doesn’t help you compete with other applicants for an apartment. Applying for a mortgage is completely out of the question, precisely because of our inability to document a steady, predictable income.
While working in both Michigan and Chicago, my wages were so low that I was eligible for food stamps even while working multiple jobs. Factors outside of my control, such as the weather, the time of year, how quickly the kitchen made the food I was serving, and the section my manager assigned me to for the shift all affected my daily earnings.
On top of that, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other implicit biases people have don’t magically disappear when they go out to dinner. As a queer woman of color, I have experienced all of the above regularly from customers, co-workers, and management.
When your main source of income is tips, you have to tolerate unacceptable behavior and advances from people with a smile, just so you can make ends meet. Some workers feel they must silently endure being harassed by their co-workers and managers to keep their job. A 2014 study by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United Forward Together found that states with a two-tiered wage system for tipped versus nontipped workers have twice the rate of sexual harassment.
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Paying a fair wage is also good for the industry. States that have implemented One Fair Wage have higher restaurant sales per employee, higher job growth, and tipping averages that equal or exceed those in two-tiered states.
Finally, to support tipped workers, become a member of Diners United, the consumer association of Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United. Diners United mobilizes restaurant diners in support of livable wages and improved working conditions for the nation’s nearly 13 million restaurant workers.