The work was nonstop-for up to 12 hours at a time-and she never took a meal break.
That’s how Toni, a waitress who asked that her last name not be used, described her experience at TGI Fridays. They say time is money, and in the feast or famine food service industry, nobody knows how much they’ll get of the latter, which for her, came mostly in the form of the tips doled out by customers.
“It can be a really great night and you bring in $250,” Toni said over the phone. “Two hundred and fifty doesn’t happen very often. I made that maybe once every six months. Sometimes you can go in there and make $25. It depends on the people at your table, [or] if the kitchen makes mistakes.”
Most of the time, it was somewhere in between-$75 to $100 on a typical night, by her estimates. While Toni says that that’s “not bad” for the 24 hours per week she spent there, it’s not good enough for her to not need a second job.
And no, that’s not including the second job she says her last employer gave her running food during the last couple of hours of her shift.
“And we’re not getting tips,” Toni said. “We make $5 an hour.”
It’s $5.78-Connecticut’s tipped worker minimum wage-to be exact. It’d be at least $9.15 if the state minimum wage hike that fell into effect this year applied to her and the 150,000 other Connecticut Association for Human Services-reported tipped workers who haven’t seen a raise in that respect for 23 years. At the federal level, minimum wage for tipped workers-60 percent of which are in the food service industry, according to the Economic Policy Institute-is $2.13 an hour.
“I don’t even pay attention to the hourly,” Toni said. “Our checks aren’t anything.”
A bill that would have brought workers like Toni under regular minimum wage laws while offering additional protections to prevent employers from stealing tips was just halted in the state legislature. The tentative law failed to make it out of the Labor Committee.
This was the first time that Connecticut Working Families, a Hartford-based independent political organization that was pushing for the legislation, sought to do away with the separate tipped worker minimum wage. Last year they went for 70 percent of the labor standard for other industries in a bill that failed to pass.
“Many people have this misconception that tipped workers make $20 to $30 an hour,” said Ana Maria Rivera-Soraspieri, the Political Director for Connecticut Working Families.
Those are the estimates that Nicole Griffin of the National Restaurant Association-an opponent of the legislation-gave when reached by phone to comment on the bill.
“I think the restaurant industry is demonized,” Griffin said. “It provides a first job for a lot of teens, college students. There’s a lot of flexibility, and you can earn a good living.”
Nationally, the median hourly wage for tipped workers is actually $10.22 when you factor in gratuity, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Employees in other sectors make a $16.48 median hourly rate, and are half as likely to fall below the poverty line.
“People are not making enough money to even live,” Rivera-Soraspieri said. “So that falls on the taxpayers.”
Forty-six percent of tipped wage earners receive public assistance, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
“We need those social safety nets, but they shouldn’t be exploited by big corporations that make tons of money but can’t pay their workers a living wage,” Rivera-Soraspieri said.
Sixty-six percent of tipped workers are women, and of that chunk of the workforce, 30 percent are single parents, according to The Economic Policy Institute.
“It’s not your typical college-aged student trying to supplement their experiences,” Rivera-Soraspieri said. “A good amount are mothers. It’s families taking care of children with rent and bills to pay.”
If Connecticut had passed the bill, it wouldn’t have been the first to abolish the tipped minimum wage. Seven other states-Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington-mandate that tipped employees receive at least the minimum hourly base pay. Twenty-five states require a rate above the federal $2.13 per hour, but less than the standard for other sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
“Tipped workers are doing better [in states where they don’t make a separate minimum wage] and poverty rates are going down,” Rivera-Soraspieri said.
While the poverty rate for tipped workers in states that apply the federal $2.13 rate was 14 percent, that drops to 10.8 percent in states without a disparity between tipped employees and other occupations. Among restaurant tipped employees-waiters/waitresses and bartenders-specifically, the poverty rate jumps to 18 percent in $2.13 states, versus 10.2 percent in places that do not have a separate tipped minimum wage, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
But what about the restaurants?
“Eliminating that wage really raises the cost of doing business,” Griffin said. “Most restaurants, in an effort to not reduce labor, do what other places do, which is increase their costs and menu prices. Various formerly successful restaurants haven’t survived-they’ve closed their doors.”
But statistics paint a different picture, Rivera-Soraspieri says.
“It’s the same argument; that it’s bad for business, bad for workers, bad for the state,” Rivera-Soraspieri said. “But we have numbers to show that’s not the case.”
California, for example, recently passed a law bringing tipped workers’ minimum wage up to the $9 an hour that employees in other industries are guaranteed and The United States Department of Labor expects restaurant sales in the state to exceed the national average.
In 2016, Connecticut’s minimum wage-per provisions in last year’s bill-will increase to $9.60. The following year, it will be $10.10. Tipped employees will not be getting that, but raises for servers-to $6.07 in 2016 and $6.38 in 2017-are tied into the legislation. Bartenders will see their minimum wage go up from the current $7.46 to $7.82 by next year, and then to $8.23 in 2017.
“To come back to it this year, is revisiting something that we already covered,” Griffin said.