Name a country where large numbers of women legally earn less than minimum wage and have to drag themselves to work sick or risk losing their job.

To all the places that come to mind, add the United States of America.

The workers in question are employed in one of the largest and fastest growing sectors in our economy: the restaurant industry.  And while revenues have been increasing even during the economic downturn, now amounting to $635 billion a year, the federal minimum wage for servers is $2.13 an hour and 90 percent of employees have no paid sick time.  More than 7 in 10 of the workers affected are female.

The problems for women in these jobs are being highlighted in a report released today, 2/13 – a date that matches the industry’s artificially low minimum wage. “Tipped Over the Edge” was prepared by Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, a smart and strategic group started ten years ago among Windows on the World employees who were not working when the World Trade Centers collapsed to improve the rights and livelihoods of restaurant workers in New York and across the country. ROC partnered on the release with a dozen groups, including Family Values @ Work.

Many people think of tipped workers walking out the door each night with pockets filled with cash. In reality, servers — the largest group among all tipped workers — experience almost three times the poverty rate of the workforce as a whole, according to the ROC report. Like child care workers who can’t afford child care and health care workers who are uninsured, our nation has large numbers of servers who have trouble putting food on the table – nearly twice as many rely on food stamps as the rate of the general population.

As the report points out, the restaurant industry is one of the only sectors in which predominately male positions have a different minimum wage than predominately female position: “In many sectors, lower wages for women are often a product of discriminatory employer practices but in the restaurant industry, lower wages for women are also set by law.”  The law in question is the tipped minimum wage.

National Restaurant Association Takes Credit for Inequality

How did this happen? Lobbyists for the National Restaurant Association – the same folks who are pouring money into attempts to defeat paid sick days initiatives – worked behind the scenes to convince the House Committee on Education and Workforce to exclude tipped workers from the bill increasing the minimum wage. We know this because the NRA bragged about it in their trade publication, which reported that “at the behest of the NRA,” the committee gave “industry trade groups much of what they wanted.”

ROC points out that these lobbyists enriched the coffers of committee members by $90,000 in the two-year period before the bill was passed.

In addition to statistical analysis of the problems female restaurant workers face, “Tipped Over the Edge” is filled with powerful stories of the women in these jobs. In each case, the women report that they’ve gone to management to ask for decent treatment.

June Lindsey, for instance, a server in Detroit, describes working at a Popeye’s with a bad cough and fever. As the mother of young children, Lindsey says, “I could not call in sick because no work meant no money, and I couldn’t afford it at that time.” But as the day went on and her symptoms got worse, she asked the manager to let her leave so she didn’t make others sick.

The response? “She laughed and told me ‘try not to cough then.’”

Policy Solutions

Fortunately, ROC has also identified high road employers. “Taking the High Road: A How-to Guide for Successful Restaurant Employers,” is a recent publication that highlights a number of the employers ROC works with and the practices that make them successful:  providing livable wages; maintaining a healthy workplace through paid sick days, vacation, or health insurance; and creating career ladders for employees through training and internal promotions policies.

While working to increase the number of high road employers, ROC and its partners are also calling for public policy changes to end the inequalities and barriers to economic security that are rampant in the industry today. Among the recommendations in today’s report:

  • Raise and index the federal subminimum wage for tipped workers to at least 70 percent of the regular minimum wage, and raise and index the federal minimum wage for all workers as well.
  • Establish a national standard that allows workers to earn seven to nine job-protected paid sick days each year to be used to recover from their own routine illness, access preventive care, or provide care for a sick family member.

The report also calls for ongoing sexual harassment training, job-training programs, and worker protection from violations of federal, state, and local equal employment opportunity laws.

For the full report, visit:  http://rocunited.org/blog/tipped-over-the-edge-gender-inequity-in-the-restaurant-industry/

Then send a letter to your representative in Congress & tell them to support WAGES, H.R. 631, legislation that will increase the tipped minimum wage to ensure that working women and families have the resources they need to not only survive but to thrive in today’s economy.