Opinion: Restaurants - someone's mother works here
May 9th, 2014
01:30 PM ET
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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.

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.

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soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Bill


    Seriously. They're guaranteed minimum wage, with the company covering the difference if tips don't make up for it.

    If that's not enough, get skills and get a real job.

    (Oh, what, you don't want to? The barely competent among you make $25+/hour after tips? Then sit down and shut up.)

    May 21, 2014 at 10:20 pm |
    • Jerv

      @Bill - go FÜCK yourself, ãsshole.

      May 21, 2014 at 10:31 pm |
      • Bill

        Here's a mirror. Now you know what a real ãsshole looks like.

        May 21, 2014 at 11:59 pm |
  2. GhengisJohn

    I never could wrap my head around the 2 dollar an hour thing that waiters and waitresses have to endure when you run of the mill pizza delivery driver for pizza hut and domonoes make min wagw at least plus tips and 1 to 2 bucks for gas PER order

    May 13, 2014 at 5:19 am |
  3. YourChoice

    I worked as a waitress, full-time, for about 10 years. You live on tips, not the paychecks. Many of my less honest co-workers did not report all of the tips, resulting in less tax liability. As long as you somewhat competently do your job, you are likely to get a decent amount of money in tips. Anyone has a chance in this country to make more money. I am the perfect example. It all comes down to choices. I made good choices. Now I own a law firm, with my name on the door. Serving taught me to respect authority, to work hard, and to make good choices. It also taught me to stand up for myself and to never let a boss abuse me. If there is a server out there who does not like his or her job, then that server needs to start making some hard choices. I don't feel that I should have to pay for anyone's poor choices. Nobody paid for mine. I got what I worked for- and that is the American way. I will continue to tip 20% for good service and to treat the servers with the same respect with which I am treated.

    May 12, 2014 at 9:52 pm |
  4. The Truth

    The Navy has a saying for whenever someone complains about their job or has a "grass is greener on the other side" complex.

    Choose your rate seal your fate.

    Being a waiter is a choice. Not everyone can or is able to go to college, but that does not mean you have no choices. There are tons of good paying jobs that do not require college. Most high schoolers have a choice to attend Votec to learn trade skills at no cost to them. Besides trade schools you can get menial jobs at companies and work hard to impress the leadership. Impressing the bosses leads to raises, promotions and schooling on the compnanies dime. If you are not getting those you are either not impressing them or you need to go to another company and try again.

    Also with the Navy reference there is always the military. I was with many Sailors who came from the poorest and most broken of homes and with some planning and hard work found good paying jobs and maketable skills after their Navy days.

    I don't feel sorry for anyone stuck in a low paying job. No one forced that career path on them, they had plenty of choices along the way to move up. Choose your rate seal your fate.

    May 12, 2014 at 12:11 pm |
    • Anon

      "Most highschoolers" definitely do not have the opportunity to a free VoTech college, I don't know where you got that information from. Anyone who goes on to further education has to pay, unless their family is low-income or they manage to receive a menial scholarship for one thing or another. Also, depending on where someone lives and whether there is public transport (rural areas do not have public transport) they are only able to get a certain job. Not everything is down the street and around the corner.

      May 12, 2014 at 8:53 pm |
  5. jamesinsf

    From her cookbook from the movie of the same name, Fried Green Tomatoes, the legendary Alabama humorist, Fannie Flagg, page 38:

    "Waitresses are the unsung heroines of the world. They all deserve a medal and certainly a bigger tip... Most of these gals are raising kids alone, go home after a hard day to cook and clean and fix dinner for their own family, one they can barely afford to feed and clothe, but they smile. Husband may be a drunk or gone, oldest kid may be in jail, youngest kid may need glasses, but you would never know it by the smile. "Hi hon, what are you gonna have today? For sheer physical endurance, running on their feet in the cafe's marathan, carrying heavy trays all day... the spoiled prima donna football and basketball players who rake in millions to play during one season would be hard-pressed to keep up with them... So whether your waitress is called Thelma, Earline, neva Jean, or Dot, don't forget that tip. They'll appreciate it."

    My mother worked as a waitress in a truck stop and I've worked as a waiter in a burger joint, beside women who were mothers. They deserve every bit of support, praise, and the biggest tips we should give them.

    May 12, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
  6. madmax80

    Talk about misinformation . . . . .

    I waited tables in college. Every few months I would stop by the business office and pick up my pay stubs for Zero Dollar paychecks. However, I never seemed to care since I had wads of $20, $50 and $100 bills in my pocket from tips. That was even after tipping out the host, bartender and busboy.

    So, yes – your pay check will be zero. But guess where your earned money comes from . . . (wait for it) . . . .TIPS!!

    May 12, 2014 at 10:52 am |

    carn- do you have a mental disorder or are you just your average run of the mill troll? When is the last time you tried to live off $2 an hour plus tips? Like, oh, never? I wish we could exile you anti-socials to a desert island.

    May 12, 2014 at 7:36 am |
  8. George

    This person apparently has never heard of waiters.

    May 12, 2014 at 2:40 am |
    • Jamie K

      Waiters will be addressed on father's day. duh.

      May 12, 2014 at 11:28 am |
  9. Thinking things through

    Happy Mother's Day everyone! (If your mother has to work today, treat her to breakfast in bed before she goes out.)

    May 11, 2014 at 8:44 am |
  10. Carn E. Vore

    Waah waah waah, EVIL CORPORATIONS waah waah waah class warfare.

    May 10, 2014 at 9:56 am |
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