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Waiting tables, serving diners and receiving rock-bottom wages

Sacramento Bee

With summer vacation season upon us, people on the road – or in places where it gets too hot to turn on the stove – are turning to America’s restaurants to stay fed. And with the restaurant industry already reporting record profits, it’s bound to be a big summer.

Unless you’re one of the 10 million restaurant workers who work for tips, that is.

The restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy and, at the same time, the nation’s lowest-paying employer. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, seven of the 11 lowest-paying jobs in America – including the two absolute lowest-paying – are restaurant jobs.

While celebrating record-high sales and profits, the National Restaurant Association continues to lobby Congress to keep the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour – and has played a major part in keeping the tipped minimum wage frozen at $2.13 an hour for the last 22 years. As a result, restaurant servers suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce and must use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce.

In a terrible irony, restaurant workers – the people who put food on our tables – cannot afford to feed themselves, let alone go on vacations of their own.

The National Restaurant Association argues that no one actually earns less than $3 an hour, since these workers make plenty of money in tips. Unfortunately, there are plenty of workers in America who can tell us otherwise.

Mike Morgan is a server in Detroit, where the minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.67 an hour. Morgan worked at a fine dining restaurant, hoping to earn good money in tips. In reality, he was lucky to bring home $200 a week. Most weeks, he didn’t even have enough to put gas in his car to get to work. Unable to pay his rent, he moved in with his mother and started selling off his belongings to cover his bills.

Because the restaurant did not offer paid sick days, he frequently worked while sick so he wouldn’t lose his job. Tips were never enough to bring Morgan up to the regular minimum wage of $7.25, but when he realized that the company must legally make up the difference, he complained and was fired.

Fortunately, restaurant workers may soon have something to celebrate. This March, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would raise the regular minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and the tipped minimum wage to more than $7. Although the National Restaurant Association and many other business leaders complain that increasing the minimum wage will hurt profits and eliminate jobs, considerable research shows that an increased minimum wage not only does not cost jobs but boosts the economy by enabling more workers to have money to spend.

In fact, a recent University of California study shows that raising the minimum wage as proposed would not increase the total cost of food bought outside the home by more than a dime a day in an average U.S. household.

So as we look forward to taking it easy and eating in America’s restaurants over our summer vacations, we can take action as consumers to help the workers who will be cooking, preparing and serving our meals. We can let Congress know that we support these workers getting a raise, and we can let restaurant management know the same, each time we eat out. As the industry celebrates and enjoys their record-high profits, they should hear that their customers would like them to share the joy with their workers.

Saru Jayaraman is the co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley. This article is part of an Oxfam America initiative to focus attention on poverty and low-wage work in America. Join the discussion at