Tipped off: Restaurant workers left out of minimum wage

June 5, 2013

(WBEZ/Shannon Heffernan)
Sandra Samoa and her 9-year-old son stand outside their apartment. Working as a bartender, Samoa says she often earns less than the minimum wage.

Over 3 million people in the U.S. work in a tipped job. Many of them are in restaurant work, one of the fastest growing industries in Chicago, after only healthcare and government.

But as the restaurant industry has grown, wages have not. That’s in part due to the laws around tipped workers.

Businesses can pay less than the hourly minimum wage to workers who earn tips.  But if the worker doesn’t earn enough tips to bring them up to the minimum wage, then the business is required to fill in the rest.

I asked several different tipped workers if their bosses did that. All of them literally laughed at me.

“That’s unheard of,” Sandra Samoa said. “In this industry you take what you are given.”

Samoa has a 9-year-old son and tends bar at a place on the West Side. She says many servers don’t know that they should be paid at least the minimum wage on average, and even if they did know, they wouldn’t push their bosses to do it.

“Once you get a job you don’t want to ruffle feathers. You don’t want to lose your job,” she said.

There’s currently proposed legislation for a higher minimum wage at both the state and federal level. But some of the fastest growing fields, like homecare and restaurant workers, aren’t included in the minimum wage. WBEZ’s Front and Center series, Exceptions to the Rule, introduces you to people who aren’t protected by the same labor laws as everyone else.

The hourly minimum for tipped workers in Illinois is $4.95. On slow nights that’s all Samoa makes. After eight hours, a total of about 40 bucks. She makes ends meet by living with

her mother and two brothers in an apartment on the North Side where she shares a tiny room with her son.

“He sleeps in the bed and I usually sleep on the floor,” Samoa said. 

She doesn’t own a dresser, so she has neatly folded clothes in laundry baskets around the room. One wall is lined with books, stacked knee high.

“My whole plan is to have a room for him one day.” she said

But at her current wages, that’s unlikely.  To rent a two bedroom apartment in Chicago, the typical restaurant worker would have to clock in 76 hours a week.

Veronica Avila works for Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), an organization for servers, bussers and bartenders.

“There is three times the poverty level amongst tipped workers, three times the reliance on public assistance,” Avila said. “You know even here we have workers who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness despite having jobs.”

About 5 percent of restaurant workers don’t make minimum wage even after tips. ROC says that workers don’t report abuse because their bosses control what shifts they work, which in turn dictates how many tips they pull in.

Avila says the best way to fix this is to create a good base pay for tipped workers.

Working to change the tipped wage

Illinois State Senator Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) tried to do just that. She filed her first minimum wage legislation in 1999. 

“I had to file that bill for every year till we in increased it in 2003,” she  aid.  “And we filed it again in 2006. So pretty much my entire career has been trying to increase the Illinois minimum wage.”

Most recently she’s working to increase the minimum wage in Illinois to $10 an hour and this time, she wants tipped  workers included. Seven other states already have tipped workers earning a regular minimum wage.

But the restaurant industry lobbied Lightford’s colleagues hard and not enough of them would sign on to a $10 minimum wage if tipped workers were included.

The Illinois Restaurant Association wouldn’t take part in an interview, but said in an email statement it said that an increase to the minimum wage will result in restaurants closing and workers losing their jobs.

“I’m one passionate person,” Lightford said. “I need 29 more to know I can get the bill passed. Then after goes over to the house I need 60 people there. And then I need the governor to concur and be as passionate.”

So in the end, with the hope of still passing the legislation, Lightford made the compromise and removed tipped workers from the regular minimum wage.

She says the bill is still good for tipped workers, because Illinois tipped workers earn 60 percent of the state minimum wage and any increase will impact them too.

Minimum wage legislation in Illinois could come up in the veto session.

Supporting family on a tipped wage

Astar Herndon from ROC says one reason the public doesn’t push for a higher tipped wage is because of the false belief that the only people who have these jobs are young, and move on to better paid work quickly.

But ROC research shows most workers stay in the restaurant industry for years, and many have families.

“These are not transient individuals. These are people who are actually relying on this money to feed their families and to feed their children,” Herndon said.

Miranda is one of those workers. WBEZ has changed her name at her request, because she worries about repercussions at work.  Her three kids and husband are back in her native country Pakistan, while she works here as a waitress.

“I want them to be here. I miss them. I want to lead a family life. But of course not where I am in my career,” she said.

Miranda usually works double shifts, six days a week.  After 12 hours away at work, the first thing she always does is video chat with her family. It’s past midnight when she calls them. But Miranda says it doesn’t matter.

The clock that matters to her is in Pakistan, where it’s morning and her kids are eating breakfast.

She usually leaves the video chat running while the kids, ages 10 to 21, play or study.

At one point Miranda lifts her foot to the screen to reveal her swollen ankle. Because of her schedule she hasn’t had time to see a doctor. Her kids ask how the finances are coming along this week. She explains that every night the tips are shared with bussers, hosts, bartenders and people in the back of the house.

“The worst part is I don’t know what I made, I don’t know what was my earning. It’s just like working blindly,” she said.

Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @shannon_h