Hot Tip: Restaurant Servers Get Left Out of the Minimum Wage Debate

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Summer weather is (finally!) arriving in Maine, and with it, thoughts of summer vacation. Whether you’re planning a road trip up the Maine coast, or sightseeing in Europe, there’s one activity that almost always accompanies summer travel: dining in restaurants. And with dining out comes the age-old question. How much do you tip?

I come from a family with strong beliefs about tipping. Twenty percent is the bare minimum. The tip should be calculated on the total bill, including tax and excluding discounts. And weird-tasting food, a long wait, or getting something a little different than what you ordered are no reason to skimp on the tip. Though it was a family joke that my dad sometimes left a tip higher than the bill, I generally agreed with this tipping philosophy. That abstract belief became much more real when, during college, I started waitressing at a local diner outside Philadelphia

I earned $2.83/hour before tips. That’s about a third of the federal minimum wage. And yet, this pay scheme is perfectly legal. Under both federal and Maine law, servers and other tipped workers are generally exempt from minimum wage requirements. Only seven states nationwide require that tipped workers earn the regular minimum wage. Most states, as well as federal law, simply require restaurants to pay a special “tipped worker” minimum wage of as low as $2.13/hour. Maine sets the standard slightly higher, setting the tipped worker minimum at $3.75/hour.

The tipped worker exemption is rooted in the assumption that servers can more than make up for their low wages in tips. In essence, it’s a way to shift the burden of paying fair wages from the restaurant owner to the customer. It’s no surprise that the National Restaurant Association fights hard against any attempt to set a fair minimum wage for servers. The Association spent more than $2 million last year lobbying against a federal bill that would have gradually raised the minimum wage for tipped workers to 70% of the regular minimum wage.

Of course, some server jobs, particularly at busy, upscale restaurants, make good money. But tips, unlike a fair minimum wage, are unreliable. I remember all too clearly days when I worked a slow seven or eight hour breakfast/lunch shift, only to come home with $15 or $20 in tips. One regular customer I will never forget came in every weekday morning, ordered a coffee and a piece of toast totaling exactly $2.30, and left me a forty cent tip. It’s hard to blame him – after all, at least he splurged for a little over 15% — but it’s also hard to live on.

There’s one important legal protection that tipped workers themselves are often unaware of: if wages plus tips do not average at least the regular minimum wage, then the employer is supposed to make up the difference. Although this provides an important safety net, it’s all too often ignored. Many servers are unaware of it (I know I was when I was waiting tables), and even if they are, they may not have reliable records of their tips and may fear they’ll risk their job by pushing the employer to pay them additional wages.

For millions of Americans, the exemption for tipped workers is more than insulting or frustrating – it can mean being unable to pay for rent, gas, and food for their family. Tipped workers are more than two times as likely to fall below the federal poverty line and three times as likely to be on food stamps, and a full 16% of waiters live in poverty. And even if the regular minimum wage is raised to $10 or more, as many policymakers have been pushing for recently, this vulnerable group will only be left further behind. So next time you’re enjoying a meal out and get that bill, think about what your tip means.