A report released today at a congressional briefing by the Restaurant Workers Opportunities Centers and 11 major women’s organizations, including the National Organization for Women Foundation, provides in shocking detail the poor working conditions and poverty level wages paid to tipped restaurant workers, two thirds of whom are women. The report, Tipped over the Edge: Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry, paints a picture of exploitation and abuse throughout an industry which employs 10 million workers.
The legal federal minimum wage for these workers is an appalling $2.13 an hour, unchanged since 1991. Tipped workers’ incomes are so low that many are forced to apply for food stamps. Employers are supposed to compensate tipped workers to assure that the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 is met, but sadly, from the results of a nationwide survey of 4,300 workers, we now know that employers often fail to meet that requirement. Servers are 71 percent female and are the largest group of all tipped workers, but their poverty rate is nearly three times the poverty rate for all workers. The gender wage gap is stark: Women servers are paid only 68 percent of what men in the same job are paid ($17,000 vs. $25,000 annually), and African-American women are paid only 60 percent of what their male counterparts are paid!
Ninety percent of workers do not receive health insurance through their employers and lack paid sick days, with more than two-thirds reporting that they have had to go to work sick because they couldn’t risk losing income or their job. More than a quarter of all female restaurant workers are mothers, so the lack of insurance and paid sick leave is a heavy burden. In addition, women workers are often given more difficult hours to work, like late evenings or when business is slow so that they earn less, with little or no control over scheduling.
Most appalling is the high rate of sexual harassment that workers experience: More than one in 10 report sexual harassment. Study authors believe that this rate is understated because data from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) identify the restaurant industry as the “single largest” source of sexual harassment claims. Interviews and focus groups reveal a work environment where there is pervasive and inappropriate verbal and sexual harassment and assault, with non-existent sexual harassment policies and training.
It’s clear that Congress needs to immediately amend federal minimum wage laws by raising the sub-minimum wage to at least 70 percent of the normal minimum wage and indexing it, giving relief to the nearly 837,000 workers and their families. This would be of special benefit to the 630,000 female tipped workers and would have the additional benefit of raising the wage floor for more than 10 million restaurant workers.
Finally, the restaurant industry needs to clean house: Employers must end widespread sexual harassment and adopt employee benefit plans that provide for health care, paid sick leave and an equitable assignment of work hours for women.