Imagine you’re a cashier at the height of flu season and three of your coworkers called in sick on a Saturday afternoon—one of the busiest times of the week. Lines are long, customers are grumpy, and your efforts to keep the line moving prevent you from being as personable as you would be under other circumstances. Despite circumstances beyond your control customers keep docking your pay. Through no fault of your own, and even though you’re doing more work, you’re going to get less pay at the end of the day.
Except that’s not how we do grocery shopping. It sounds ridiculous and unfair. But that’s how we approach restaurant service. Waitstaff and bartenders are among the only professionals we continue to treat this way, through the use of the tipped wage. The tipped wage is an exception in the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows employers to pay their workers below the minimum wage, as long as the employees receive enough tips to make up the difference. Its a provision that makes servers almost unique among paid employees, and it has no place in a modern economy.
The tipped wage in Maine will be gradually phased out by 2024, making wait staff and the other 21,000 tipped workers in Maine less dependent on the largesse of strangers for a living. It’s important to know that tipping itself will not end – but it will will ensure tipped workers a greater level of independence.
The rationale behind tipping is that pay is proportional to service. But numerous studies show that the size of a server’s tip has very little relation to skill. Tips are more abundant at high-end restaurants, in tourist season, and on busy weeknights. A server in Portland’s Old Port can earn vastly more than someone in a Greenville diner performing essentially the same job.
There’s no denying that some workers do well out of the current system. But it’s wrong to assume that everyone earns the $30-$60 an hour boasted by some who champion it. Average wages for tipped servers are just $10 an hour. It’s easy to see why. Data from restaurant financials show that a server at a lower-end restaurant like Denny’s has to serve up to 9 people every hour just to make minimum wage, if tips are scarce. And the ability of an individual to earn more is largely at the mercy of external factors. A wait person has no control over the section they are working, the traffic in the restaurant, or the speed of the diners or the kitchen staff.
Tipping is also a system that is open to abuse from both sides – customers and employers. Tipped workers are more likely to be victims of wage theft, or forced to worked unpaid overtime. Tipped workers regularly suffer sexual harassment, from customers and management, at a higher rate than other professions. If the shift or section you’re assigned to can double your earnings, your supervisor has all the power. If paying rent depends on getting a good tip from this table, you have to ignore the lewd comments and suggestive looks.
Some disparities occur unintentionally. Since tipped workers depend on strangers for their living, they are at the mercy of human failings. More attractive servers earn more tips. Women generally do better than men. People of color and older workers lose out. In any other work environment these disparities would be illegal. But this behavior has been tolerated in the restaurant industry for too long.
Maine voters recognized this, and in November, the minimum wage increase was approved by a record number of voters. Lawmakers looking to undermine the referendum, and those arguing to keep the tipped wage should make sure they know all the facts. Don’t allow employers who benefited from the old system at the expense of their workers, distort the facts. It’s time the restaurant industry played by the same rules as other employers, and it’s time tipped workers were ensured the same basic protection from discrimination at work as the rest of us.