Showing America's servers some love for Valentine's Day

In the United States, seven of the ten lowest-paid occupations are in the restaurant industry, mostly majority-female occupations with a median wage below the poverty line. A new report released today entitled “Tipped Over the Edge,” documents the gender inequity that results from the low wage paid to tipped employees even as the industry continues to profit.

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In most industries, the gender wage gap is due to employer discrimination. In the restaurant industry, it’s also a matter of policy. Fifty-two percent of all restaurant workers are women, but 66 percent of tipped workers are women. This creates systematic gender inequity for tipped workers in the restaurant industry. The outcome is that servers, 71 percent of whom are female, are nearly twice as likely to need food stamps as the general population. In other words, many of the workers who serve America its food cannot afford to feed their own families.

The resulting inequality is pervasive throughout the industry. To start with, women are largely confined to the lower-paid positions within restaurants. Women are hired for only 19 percent of chef positions, for example, even though traditionally most women are likely to do a majority of the cooking at home.

In addition, women are disproportionately limited to the lower-paying segments of the industry such as “quick-serve” and “family style” rather than the highest-paying “fine dining” segment.  According to the Census Bureau, women in the United States earn 77 percent of what their male counterparts earn. This wage gap is starker for women in the restaurant industry. Even within the same job classification of server, full-time, year-round female servers are paid just 68 percent of what male servers are paid. Over a work career, that means the industry takes an extra $320,000 from each female server – money that might otherwise make it possible to buy a home or car or send children to college.

While only 31 percent of U.S. employers don’t provide health coverage for employees, 90 percent of restaurant workers surveyed nationwide reported not being provided employer-paid sick days or health benefits. Two–thirds reported having to cook, prepare, or serve food while sick because they could not afford to take unpaid time off.

Low pay and refusal to provide sick pay or health coverage benefits the large, wealthy chains while jeopardizing the wellness and economic security of some of our nation’s lowest-earning employees. These chains have led the effort to keep wages low and limit benefits to employees in this growing industry.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2011, the National Restaurant Association—among the “Power 25” lobbying organizations—spent more than $2.5 million lobbying Congress to protect its interests, including efforts to fight an increase in the federal tipped minimum wage. The industry argues that an increase in the federal tipped minimum wage would harm business growth or lead to job losses. However, contemporary research finds that a higher minimum wage for tipped workers has no measurable impact on employment and business growth for the restaurant industry, while reaping an overall positive benefit for workers.

When it comes to protecting women’s wages and benefits, Congress has worked in earnest to promote policies that ensure economic security for women and their families. Over the last few years, Congress has fought to extend and improve unemployment benefits, protect food stamps, make sweeping changes to the nation’s health care system, and pass the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to restore the rights of women and other workers and challenge unfair pay.

This Valentine’s Day, it’s time for Congress and the restaurant industry to work together and take one step further for women to promote gender equity in the workplace and promote fair wages for the nation’s tipped employees. There is no reason that the women who cook, prepare, and serve our meals should trade their health for wages and face limited opportunities for career mobility. America’s working women cannot live off the status quo and we must show them the economic respect they are long overdue – in the form of living wages, paid sick days and health coverage, and an end to discrimination and harassment.

For its part, Congress needs to raise the tipped workers’ minimum wage to at least 70 percent of the overall federal minimum wage. And while the restaurant industry continues to outpace national job growth for the 12th consecutive year, even in a still-recovering economy, it must perform its due diligence to its tipped employees. America’s servers cannot afford to wait any longer.

Rep. Edwards (D-Md.) is a member of the House Ethics and Transportation & Infrastructure Committees. Saru Jayaraman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and is a Co-Founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.