A Bittersweet Day for Working Mothers Living Off Tips

Like millions of mothers across America, my two little girls are taking me out to eat for Mothers' Day. I enjoy being with my children as much as everyone else, but this Mothers' Day will be bittersweet.
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Like millions of mothers across America, my two little girls are taking me out to eat for Mothers' Day. I enjoy being with my children as much as everyone else, but this Mothers' Day will be bittersweet. As the co-founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, a national restaurant workers' organization, I know that my server, more than likely to be a woman, is also more than likely a mom like me -- quite likely a single mom. She will be working to serve me on Mothers' Day, and being paid as little as $2.13 an hour, because the law allows my tips to be the primary source of her income. Sadly, I also know that, despite our best efforts, this Mothers' Day, while most other hourly wage workers in New York will be celebrating a raise to $15 an hour, 300,000 tipped workers, 70 percent women and disproportionately single mothers, will see their wages decline.

In all but seven states, tipped workers are paid a separate, lower minimum wage that starts at $2.13 an hour at the federal level -- a rate that hasn't changed since 1991. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo's successful efforts to increase the minimum wage for tipped workers unfortunately resulted in a bill that reduced the state's nearly 300,000 tipped workers from 83 percent of the minimum wage to 66 percent of the minimum wage. Fortunately, Governor Cuomo still has the opportunity to fix this injustice through administrative means.

The prevailing myth is that tipped workers are largely young white men working at fine dining establishments, earning six figures. In reality, 51 percent of tipped workers are people of color and a full 70 percent are women, 40 percent of whom are mothers, working in casual dining establishments. The sub-minimum wage system perpetuates a gender pay gap that disproportionately impacts Black women servers, who thus lose more than $400,000 over a lifetime. They spend long hours putting food on the tables of others, all the while struggling to put food on their own.

Even worse, the tipped minimum wage forces female servers -- oftentimes mothers with young children waiting at home -- to tolerate inappropriate and degrading behavior from customers, coworkers and managers in order to make a living. Seven percent of American women work in the restaurant industry, it is responsible for 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims to the EEOC. I remember taking my little girls to Chili's -- a "family restaurant" -- and noticing that all the servers were women whose uniform was a tight t-shirt with the word "Fresh" across the breasts. Just imagine that it's your mother waiting tables all night, all the while surviving this kind of treatment.

Tipping in America is rooted in slavery and racism. Post-slavery America actually viewed tipping as a demeaning practice fit only for former slaves, whom business owners resented having to pay in the first place. Nearly two hundred years later, that rationale -- that it is acceptable for tipped workers to rely on customers rather than their employers for a living wage -- continues to persist, aided and abetted by the lobbying efforts of powerful restaurant industry giants like the National Restaurant Association. It's about time we end this despicable legacy in New York once and for all.

The seven states, including California and the entire West Coast, that have already eliminated the sub-minimum are watching their restaurant industries flourish; jobs aren't going away in California, and neither are tips. In fact, California recently took a step further, increasing the minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers, to $15 per hour. New York is ready for One Fair Wage.

As a mother I know the joy of motherhood, and the incredible stress that comes with trying to do the best for our kids. I can't imagine trying to feed my two little ones on tips. We can and must do so much better by the millions of mothers nationwide, and the hundreds of thousands of moms in New York.

When you take your mothers out this Sunday, please do three things for the mothers who will be serving our meals. First, visit www.onefairwage.com to let legislators know that tipped workers should be paid the full minimum wage, rather than having to rely on tips. Second, share the Mothers' Day memes on our website with everyone you know. Lastly, on our site you'll find cards you can print out to leave your server to let them know you appreciate them, and that there' s a place they can go to get help. So this Mothers' Day, tip well to show your appreciation for the mom serving you when she could be home with their own kids -- and leave that card behind with your tips, to help her feed her family with dignity and respect.

Saru Jayaraman is the co-founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centesr United, the Director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Forked, A New Standard for American Dining (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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