One Fair Wage for All

I am a longtime employee of the service industry. I have 28 years under my belt, from dishwasher to manager and all conceivable areas of the front of house. I have worked in San Francisco, Oakland, New Orleans, and Minneapolis. My primary trade is as a server or bartender, which means that I am a tipped employee. Yes, folks. I make tips. I give people stuff to eat and drink, and they give me money.

And there are many who have an extremely romantic view of what that life entails. I have heard the term “six figures” bandied about. There are those who would have you believe that servers and bartenders sleep on beds made of cash that they failed to declare to the IRS. They spend their off time guzzling Crystal and making it rain Benjamins. And oh they laugh and laugh at the hard working suckers who scrape a measly living in their cubicles and actually work for a living. And the people who would love most of all for you to believe this are those who will be paying whatever minimum wage the city of Minneapolis decides.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on an ordinance for a $15 minimum wage for all workers on Friday. It’s great. People should be able to support themselves by working jobs. It’s kind of a thing they’re trying to do when they get said jobs. But once again, as we peer into a future where the lowest paid employees get to make a little more money, the fight over tipped employees resumes. The majority of states in our union enact something called a tip penalty, which means that employers pay their tipped employees less than minimum wage. We don’t do that here in Minnesota. But there are many who want us to start.

Our mayor issued a statement on this subject in defense of remaining a “one fair wage” state and raising the minimum wage for all. She cites statistics and talks about how it would affect women and low-wage workers. She talks about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the service industry.

And then Stephanie March, who is a food writer for Mpls St Paul Magazine, issued a scathing rebuttal to Hodges statement entitled “Dear Madam Mayor.” She pulled out all the stops in this one. It was practically a feminist manifesto in favor of paying waiters less. She was positively insulted that the Mayor brought up sexual harassment and described several powerful female “asskickers of the first order” she knew who worked in the service industry. She made the Mayor’s statement sound like an affront to women. She balked at the term “tip-penalty,” claiming that the term is “tip-credit,” and the Mayor was renaming it for political gain.

There is actually no specific term that is correct, be it tip credit or tip penalty. Google it. You’ll find both terms used. It just depends on who’s using it. It is a penalty to the employee, as they are expected to rely on tips to make up the difference in what their employer isn’t paying them. It is a credit to the employer, because they don’t have to pay as much money. From here on out, we’re calling it a penalty.

March spent a great deal of time acting affronted that the Mayor would insinuate that sexual harassment is a problem in the service industry, pointing out that it happens in dental offices too. Cute. Way to wave the woman flag and proudly announce that these asskickers don’t need the mayor’s help. I’m sure there is harassment in dental offices. But I will tell you, I have held many, many jobs in my time, and I have never experienced more harassment than I have as a tipped employee. I have been grabbed inappropriately by managers. I have seen penises just pulled on out of the pants for my viewing pleasure. I was once yanked across a bar top by my arm as I was trying to bus some glassware. I have had lit cigarettes, drinks, and ashtrays thrown at me, and been called every derogatory name you can imagine. I could write a novel sized litany of times I have been sexually harassed, emotionally abused, and flat out assaulted. So if the Mayor wants to point out that this is a problem in this industry, I’m all for it. This doesn’t mean I don’t kick ass, rather that I bring food and drinks to people, and not all of them are nice.

See, my job isn’t a nonstop party where I drive home in a Benz that I paid for in cash. It is a job. I have spent nearly three decades doing it. I have built a very impressive resume. I am very good at it. I get better jobs than others, because of my talent and experience. I do make tips. That is a custom in the service industry. So are on-call shifts, where you are not working, but you need to be available all day in case they need you. On-call shifts are not paid. I will tell you some things that are not customs. I do not get health insurance through work. There is no 401k. There is no such thing as paid time off, and even if I work somewhere for 8 years, which I have done, there is absolutely no possibility of a raise. There are no benefits guaranteed for tipped employees. There are some wonderful restaurant owners out there who provide some of these things for their employees, but it is a rarity. So all those fabulous tips they make have to cover all of these costs.

Several groups fighting for the tip penalty have argued that restaurants will have to close down if the minimum wage goes up for tipped employees. The last time it went up was 2014. My boss at the time gave us a long talk about how expensive it was to run a restaurant and how hard the wage increase would hit her. Since the wage went up she has opened two more restaurants. In fact, in 2014 ninety-one restaurants opened in the metro area. That’s a record. The next year QSR Magazine ranked Minneapolis/St. Paul the number one market in the country for restaurant growth. That was even in their “large market” category, as in with higher populations. Stephanie March argued that Seattle and San Francisco, who have raised their minimum wage with no tip penalty, do not compare, because they are bigger cities. Actually Minneapolis/St. Paul is a very similar size as Seattle and much larger than San Francisco.

It is a very social and often fun job. But it is extremely hard work, and it is very dangerous. I have rushed to the hospital several times for stitches. I have called 911 dozens of times for bar fights or injuries. I work with caustic chemicals. I have friends with carpal tunnel, arthritis, bad backs and knees, all from the glorious industry. I am criminally and financially responsible for the outcome of my patrons’ night. If something goes wrong, I can be sued and/or prosecuted. I assume massive risk and liability working this job. That, paired with the experience I have built and skills I have honed, the thousands of drink recipes in the rolodex in my head, the knowledge of food and wine and liquor and the law, the social skills to diffuse dangerous situations and handle people with mental or chemical problems, I do not in any way feel bad that after nearly 30 years of work, that I make what I do. It’s not always great. Some times it’s terrible. But it often works out alright.

I was asked many times over the past week what I make, by reporters and union workers and people working on this issue. They want to know if I make an average of more or less than the proposed minimum wage. The question always caught me off guard. Partly because if I asked any office worker what they make it would be considered rude. Partly because my income varies. I work seasonal jobs, and some times in the off season I make a lot less than the proposed minimum wage. And partly because it doesn’t matter. I have built up a right to make what I make. I have put in the time and effort. And I don’t get it through promotion or raises. I get better jobs, because my experience and talent has earned that. But no matter how much better the job, the employer will still always just pay me the least amount of money that is legally possible. If I make more than I did 10 years ago, it is because I earned a more promising gig. And if someone is making six figures, which really is insane. Like those people are unicorns. But the rare ones who exist, if they do, are absolutely knocking decades off their lives, they’re working so hard.

The wage will aeffect me, but I am not the only person considered a tipped employee. The US Department of Labor defines a tipped employee as anyone making over $30 a month. That’s not just servers and bartenders. That’s baristas and bussers and hotel cleaning staff. It’s doormen and barbacks and hosts. It includes the kitchen staff in some restaurants. And all of those people will also be susceptible to the tip penalty. I worked in New Orleans, where they paid me $2.13 an hour. Some days no-one would come in to the restaurant, and I would have made less than ten dollars after taxes for spending my day there. Technically if you average less than regular minimum wage over a two week period, your employer is required to make up the difference. According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center there is an 80% noncompliance rate for this. That means employers rarely pay you the difference. That means that all of these other tipped positions will be vulnerable to this exploited lower wage. And as the legislation in Minneapolis influences that for the rest of the state, tipped workers everywhere will be vulnerable. And let me be clear that while there are some decent jobs out there, there are far more that do not land you piles of money. Betsy Hodges cites a study by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics that showed the average wage for metro area servers came to not much more than $10 an hour from 2012–2015.

And even if we are talking about just me, let us all keep in mind that tipped employees are not independent contractors. They do not lounge in the break room until a guest comes in to pay their wages. They work. They clean, polish and maintain the restaurant. They prep and stock and cut bread and scour stations. On those days in New Orleans when nobody showed up, I still polished every plate and glass and all the cutlery. I prepped all of the butter and bread, made the coffee, cleaned the wait station, helped the cooks carry in the order, swept, mopped, dusted, and folded linens. I spent my time maintaining the establishment and making sure it was ready for business. And my employer felt that this effort was worth $2.13 an hour. That is what they paid for my labor. I was not even worth minimum wage to them.

This is a dangerous and exploited industry. Health and safety codes are broken. You are always at risk of injury and chronic health problems. Many owners make you pay the transaction fees they are charged by the credit card companies out of your own tips. They provide no benefits and do not compensate you if you are sick or have an emergency. Shifts are sometimes 12 hours long, or scheduled until 3 am and again the next morning at 9. Other times you show up to work and are cut immediately, making no money at all. A great deal of service staff do not know labor laws or their rights as employees, so they are easily exploited. Individual owners often don’t bother to learn laws regarding their employees, and frequently break them because no-one calls them on it, or they just fire those who do. It is not a nonstop party. If it is busy it is mentally and physically exhausting. If it is slow you make no money. Most servers I know in decent jobs don’t even get paychecks. They are just voided to cover taxes on their tips. So they live off whatever tips they make alone. We work on an unreliable commission that our owners have nothing to do with.

The tip penalty would essentially mean that tipped employees, who are minimum wage employees, would not benefit from a new minimum wage. They would pay themselves out of money they are already making, if they are even making enough. It means that we decided that these people do not deserve a raise. The work that many of them have been doing for decades isn’t worth it. They make too much money as it is. And it bundles together in this group of skilled professionals who have devoted their lives to earn this living all sorts of other jobs that do not even earn $15 an hour and would be neglected by this loophole. When we say this to our staff, we tell them they are not worth it. And people who feel this way are not loyal, because they do not respect you, as you have not shown them the respect of paying them a living wage. If we pay everyone equally and maintain our tradition as a one fair wage state we will foster greater loyalty and decrease turnover as people stay at jobs they value for longer.

Tip penalty supporters would have you think that we’re a bunch of unskilled college kids who are raking in more tax free money than God. But the fact is that the majority of servers in this country live below the poverty level. And those that make a decent living are professionals who have earned their income through years of hard work. If we want to stay a city of foodies, ranking up there with the flourishing scenes of San Francisco and Seattle, then we should follow their lead and keep our own history of being a one fair wage state intact.