For more than a decade, Jessica Wynter Martin has earned a living in one of the most demanding and lowest paying industries in America—food service. The African American, 26-year-old, University of California – Berkeley graduate, currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. and has done every imaginable job in the restaurant business, including working as a busser, food runner, food preparer, cook and host.
The business is in Martin’s blood. Her father is a chef and her mother, who raised her alone, is a server. Martin started in the industry at 15-years old as a busser at the restaurant where her mom worked. And all too often, the theme of struggling to make ends meet, followed her to each, new job, particularly since in D.C., the tipped wage (or base pay to an employee who received a significant portion of their compensation through tips) is only $2.77 per hour. “I’m getting paid less in an hour than the cost of one drink,” she quickly calculates. “My labor is not worth one margarita, but I’m selling twenty margaritas an hour.”
Martin’s story is all too common among those working in the restaurant industry or other tipped fields like hairdressers. Despite a federal minimum wage of $7.25 in the U.S., restaurants in many states are exempt and sometimes pay workers as little as $2.13 per hour—with the expectation that tips from customers will make up the difference.
According to Saru Jayaraman, author of Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, tipping in this country is actually rooted in the racist, historical practices of post-slavery America. Employers often did not compensate their newly freed, former slave employees, forcing Black workers to rely on customer gratuity in order to survive. And the vestiges of these practices currently continues to have an impact. Today, restaurant workers are nearly twice as likely to live below the poverty line than other workers. For the African American community—especially African American women—fair pay for tipped workers is an imperative.
Among the tipped worker labor force, 38 percent are people of color and 72 percent are women. Not surprisingly, women, African American and Hispanic workers are more likely than other restaurant workers to be stuck in poverty.
“People tip women less and darker people less,” explains Martin. She also notes that a lot of discrimination is based on aesthetics as women with fuller figures are often discriminated against. People of color and women—especially immigrants—are at the bottom while whites and males are at the highest tipped environment.
The hard work of employees who are overwhelmingly female and often people of color have produced incredible profits for the businesses they serve, yet these workers don’t share in the prosperity. It is highly unlikely that tipped waged workers receive paid vacation, paid sick days, employer-subsidized healthcare, retirement plans or maternity leave.
“I don’t want tips, I want wages,” states Martin emphatically. And she’s not just sitting back hoping someone gives them to her. Martin is an outspoken advocate and organizer with the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a national, nonprofit organization that supports restaurant workers in gaining their voice and victory over wage theft, discrimination, sexual harassment and other injustices rampant in the field.
According to the Department of Labor, currently 17 states allow employers to pay employees the federal tipped wage rate of $2.13/hour. The remaining 33 states mandate employers must pay workers above the federal tipped wage or their state’s minimum wage.
The tipped wage hasn’t been increased since 1991, adding to a long list of economic policies throughout the last 25 years that have contributed to the economic collapse of the African American working class with effects that are still felt today.
Although employers are responsible for compensating an employee who does not make enough in tips to equal at least the minimum wage, most employers do not fulfill this obligation. There is an informality when dividing tips amongst servers, bartenders, bussers, food-runners, hosts, cooks, and other workers in the food service industry and so it is difficult to precisely regulate and police the wage theft committed by employers and endured by their staff. In several ways, this contemporary system validates racist conceptions that started with the idea that African American workers are “less-than-worthy” and formalizes the devaluation of our labor.
The tipped wage system is among the most exploitative mechanisms in the American economy today. It forcibly keeps African American women and men impoverished and reeling economically. Restaurants and corporations continuously reap massive amounts of profits, but little of this prosperity is shared with the African American women and men who work tirelessly to make-ends-meet.
Bills like the Raise the Wage Act of 2015 show that there is political momentum for the labor movement to advance a higher wage agenda and abolish the tipped wage all together, which should become a policy priority. African American and Latino labor that goes undercompensated is nothing short of exploitation and is a perpetuator of the income and wealth inequality that is so highly racialized in our society. As we head into election season, African American voters should add eliminating the tipped minimum wage to the expectations we have of any candidate who is seeking our vote.
Kimberly Freeman Brown (@kfreemanbrown) is author of And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leader’s Voices, Power and Promise and former executive director of American Rights at Work. Marc Bayard Bayard (@marcbayard) is a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project and the Director of the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies, which published And Still I Rise in May 2015.