A Full Day’s Work, a Zero Dollar Paycheck

When my co-worker first informed me that her paycheck from waitressing was often zero dollars, I was shocked and confused. How could the over two million waiters and waitresses employed in the United States be living on such extremely low wages? The reality is that they barely are.

In 1966, Congress adopted a federal minimum wage for tipped workers, but it was only 50 percent of the minimum wage for other workers. The federal standard is just above two dollars an hour, and it has remained this low since 1991. Sounds out of this world, right? $2.13 an hour is less than 30 percent of the standard minimum wage, which is $7.25.

The result is widespread poverty, since $2.13 is nowhere near a living wage. Tipped workers are three times as likely to live in poverty and 70 percent of tipped workers are women.  We aren’t ever going to close the wage gap if we don’t accomplish pay equity for tipped workers.Money

Seven states have eliminated the separate minimum wages for tipped workers and other workers, but other states have not been as successful. Eight states have state minimum wage laws for tipped workers, but the rate is still less than three dollars an hour. Eighteen states, on the other hand, do not have state minimum wage laws for tipped workers at all.

Laws that seek to adjust wages for tipped workers, like the law requiring employers to pay workers the standard minimum wage if their tipped income is lower, are often unenforced. Sometimes employers will fail to pass tips left on credit cards or will split up tips amongst workers, blatantly stealing money from their employees.

Thanks in part to a pay equity resolution passed at the 2014 National NOW Conference, NOW will work with allies in Congress to establish minimum wage rates for all workers. NOW chapters and state organizations are working with workers’ centers, union sand legislators to have their states eliminate the differential between minimum wage rates for tipped workers and other workers.

NOW also fervently supports the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour (over the next 3 years) and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to 70 percent of the standard minimum wage.

Raising the minimum wage as proposed above would only increase food costs at most by 10 cents a day for consumers, but it would benefit the roughly 29 million low-wage workers in the United States, 8 million of which are food system workers.

Pay equity for tipped workers is no longer an option—it’s a necessity for the millions of low-wage workers in the US who are being forced to live off of nothing but tips. Zero dollar paychecks are not uncommon, but they are unacceptable.

Learn more about raising the tipped minimum wage in NOW’s backgrounder on the issue. Also available in PDF format. 

4 responses to “A Full Day’s Work, a Zero Dollar Paycheck

  1. My granddaughter is working as a waitress while she is in college and depends upon the money for rent, utilities, transportation, books, etc. Fortunately her parents have set aside a college tuition plan for her since she was in first grade so she doesn’t have to worry about that. She is struggling….

  2. Hi Bev — thanks for sharing your granddaughter’s experiences with waitressing. Her experience exemplifies why we must raise the minimum wage for ALL workers. Best of luck to your granddaughter!

  3. As a bartender in NJ (where the taxes are extraordinarily high), I have receive many zero dollar paychecks. After a couple of 12 hour shifts, taking home decent tip money is usually worth it until you realize it’s not all yours. 95% of the bartenders I work with are bartending as a career. I can’t imagine it is fair to make $2/hour and still owe the government money after running around for 8-14 hours straight…many times we barely get a chance to use the bathroom; and eating a meal and/or sitting down for even 10 minutes is a rare luxury. This is also why it is very hard to bite your tongue when a customer doesn’t leave a tip despite great or even adequate service. Working in a culturally diverse area adds complexity in regards to tipping. Some cultures or recent residents and visitors do not know it’s customary. I’m rambling now but having said all of this, you can understand why it may be devastating to receive a zero dollar check for a pay period.

    Power inequity.

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