Editor’s note: Saru Jayaraman is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, and author of Behind the Kitchen Door, a groundbreaking exploration of the political, economic, and moral implications of dining out.
Nation’s Restaurant News named her as one of the 50 most powerful people in the restaurant industry and she was recently included in CNN Living’s 10 Visionary Women list.
About 80 million of us will head to our favorite restaurant with our Moms this Sunday. It’s considered one of the highest grossing days of the year for the restaurant industry. The world’s largest restaurant lobby, the National Restaurant Association, says that more than one quarter of American adults will celebrate Mother’s Day by dining out and nearly one in 10 more will order takeout or delivery.
The majority of restaurant servers working on Sunday will be women, millions of them mothers. They will be earning a sub-minimum wage as low as $2.13 an hour (the federal rate since 1991); their take-home pay will be mostly tips, whatever they have leftover, in some cases, after tipping out bussers, hosts, and the rest of the restaurant’s tipped staff.
Due to the instability of living off tips, these women are undoubtedly looking forward to Mother’s Day, even if it means not being with their own family, because serving a lot of customers usually increases what they can expect in tips.
Most of these servers are women like Tiffany Kirk from Houston, a single mother who has missed spending every single holiday with her daughter, Piper, because she can’t afford to not miss out on tips.
Or Victoria Bruton: she was earning $2.13 and living off tips in Philadelphia. One year, she had to cancel Christmas for her two young daughters because she didn’t make enough to afford presents and pay that month’s bills, and she remembers the girls’ sadness like it was yesterday. Today, both her grown daughters have jobs in the service industry making the same base wage she did more than two decades ago.
Karlyn Dozier, from New Orleans, routinely got passed over for promotions at Red Lobster despite outranking others in seniority. She recently had to move back in with her mom so she can take care of herself and her son.
There are millions more stories like these from women across the country. They’ll tell you they routinely get $0 paychecks (taxes eat up that $2.13 base pay pretty fast), have more than one job, spend more in gas money than they make in a day, and are no strangers to standing in line at churches to get food for their families.
These women represent the majority experience of what it’s like living off tips. Nationally, this results in servers using food stamps at twice the rate of the general workforce and are three-times as likely to live in poverty than any other worker.
The truth is that on any day, the generosity of a server’s customers will be the most important factor determining the worker’s pay. And that “generosity” is often shaped by sexism and racism. Not only do white servers earn more in tips than their black counterparts, getting a good tip corresponds with how “attractive” you are. So, despite being employed, the majority of a server’s wages comes from restaurant-goers, not their employers, and is determined by their customers’ prejudices.
In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission targets the restaurant industry as the single largest source of all sexual harassment with 37 percent of all sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC — that’s five times higher than the rest of the workforce.
As a mother of two little girls, who are likely to be introduced to the workplace through the restaurant industry, I shudder to think about how living off tips often means women must subject themselves to being talked to and treated inappropriately just to earn their wages.
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In an unsavory irony, the women who work hard to serve millions of hungry customers on Mother’s Day face a daily struggle to feed their themselves and their families while dealing with rampant sexism and racism, while the majority of Sunday’s profits will line the pockets of corporate restaurant CEOs.
Those very same CEOs head up some of the largest restaurant brands in the world, like McDonald’s, Darden Restaurants (parent to Olive Garden, Red Lobster), IHOP, and Taco Bell — to name a few. They all belong to the National Restaurant Association, or “The Other NRA,” which puts those corporate dollars to work by lobbying against legislation that would immediately and especially benefit the lives of mothers and their families, like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, and the Paycheck Fairness Act.
So, while I’m with you in that I love going out to eat, it’s time to put pressure on our elected officials to make the restaurant industry hospitable for women. As the fastest-growing industry in the economy, we already know or will come to know a woman who will enter the restaurant workforce.
Because we all have mothers, let’s support those working this Mother’s Day by telling our elected officials to raise the tipped minimum wage and stand up to the National Restaurant Association’s corporate agenda.
Learn more at rocunited.org. The opinions expressed are solely those of Saru Jayaraman.