Serving Below Minimum Wage

Serving Below Minimum Wage

Cameron Costanzo, Staff Writer

I started in the restaurant business when I was 15 years old as a busboy. It was a decent first job; it gave me something to do over the summer and money to spend. I considered continuing it through the school year but decided against it in favor of some extracurricular school activities instead. The next summer I worked in a warehouse and didn’t return to the restaurant business for a while.

Fast forward six years and I am in Boston, spending the summer living with my best friend and working as a researcher in a physics lab. I have received a grant to do the research but rent in Boston is a little steep, so I get a job as a host at a pizza place to supplement my grant money. The money is good — minimum wage in Boston is $12 an hour — but I am jealous of the servers. Their jobs are fast-paced and emotional, and they exist as a clique amongst the rest of the staff. They are the cool kids in the high school-like social structure of Regina Pizzeria.

On top of all that, the servers make the real money. Every table is a chance to win big. If you’re charming, attractive, and know just how to work the table, you could leave the joint every night with wads of cash. Forget paychecks! They are insignificant compared to the rush of a substantial cash award from a patron. All of this is what I made serving out to be in my head. Until I became a server myself.

This wasn’t at Regina Pizzeria. It was almost a year later and I was back home in New Jersey. I had restaurant experience under my belt and was ready to wait tables. I went to the busiest place within a five-mile radius of my house and got what I wanted.

It was pretty soon after I started that I realized that — for me and many others, being a server in the restaurant industry is not good. My beliefs were validated by the amazing attorney and activist Saru Jayaraman.

Jayaraman is the co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a not-for-profit public service organization devoted to improving wages and conditions for restaurant workers in the U.S. She is also the author of three books which cumulatively sum up how the restaurant industry in the U.S. needs to change.

Jayaraman draws attention to the early days of restaurants in the U.S. and how tipping became the norm for many food services workers. Tipping originated in aristocratic feudal Europe as a way to reward servants for a, particularly good job. It only came to the U.S. around the time of the Emancipation Proclamation when many in power wanted to continue paying African Americans nothing for the labor. A way for the restaurant industry to do this was to introduce the idea of tipping. This way, restaurants could hire freed slaves and continue to pay them nothing and put the onus of paying them onto the patrons.

Today, millions of workers across the U.S. still rely on this antiquated tradition to provide them with an income and allow them to subsist. Not coincidentally, Jayaraman notes, nearly one in eleven workers in the U.S. work in the foodservice industry, and yet, according to the Department of Labor, seven of the ten lowest-paying jobs in the U.S. in 2019 were jobs in the foodservice industry. The median income for waiters in the U.S. is $10.47 per hour which is less than many state’s minimum wages.

Shifting wage payments from employers to customers also creates a power dynamic between servers and customers. If you are a waitress, you are probably familiar with this. In its most innocent form, it sounds something like, “Can I get you anything else, sir? Yeah, how about a date with you?” In 2017, Vox reported that the food industry saw more sexual harassment claims than any other industry in the country.

“The industry is essentially cannibalizing itself,” Jayaraman said on an episode of the podcast Pitchfork Economics. “The industry right now is reflecting the hourglass nature of our economy. You’re seeing huge growth in fine dining at the top and huge growth in quick service at the bottom. Those middle-tier restaurants, the Olive Gardens, and Applebees are stagnating because the working families that used to be able to eat in those restaurants can no longer afford to do so. And guess who is the largest employing industry among those working families.”

At the moment, my serving job is on hold, but I am hesitant to go back. There were some good weeks, but there were more bad weeks, where I was forced to count every penny I made in tips just to make sure I cleared New Jersey’s meager minimum wage. Now that we know, what can we do? I am still figuring that out, but I know we can help by voting in local and state elections and sending messages to our elected officials, letting them know that this system can be better. Seven states in the U.S. pay servers a true minimum wage, with tips going on top of that.