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Commentary Working & the Economy

Opinion: The Reality of Working for Tips

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In the drive to raise Maryland’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, a lot of misinformation has been circulating, much of it about the tipped wage. Currently, the minimum wage for tipped workers in Maryland is $3.63 and the restaurant industry is working hard to keep it frozen at that poverty rate. I’ve been a tipped and untipped worker in restaurants for 18 years and know that tipped workers desperately need a raise.

Raising the minimum wage to $15 for tipped employees would not end tipping, as has been rumored, but it would protect us from this unreliable and illogical model for compensating our time and hard work.

Eating out is wildly popular. If we want it, we should pay the people who provide it. Cooks love to cook. Servers love to be hospitable. Maryland wants to work, and to be proud of our good work. Tipped workers like me want to earn a reliable wage and show business owners what their workforce is capable of when our most basic needs are met, when we are not afraid, and trapped in cycles of poverty.

I’ve worked both as a high-end cook and pastry chef, as a server in a James Beard-awarded restaurant, and now as a bartender at a large brewery. I’m more fortunate than many in my industry because I’m married with no children, my parents don’t require my assistance, and my most expensive habit is our health insurance. But I still live paycheck to paycheck and have never started a month feeling sure that my rent would be paid by the end.

Working for tips is like gambling.

I’ve experienced the humiliation of providing excellent service, being thanked warmly by my guest, and getting no tip. At the James Beard-awarded restaurant, the tipped serving staff were flush after the national recognition, then public attention wandered, and a slow Wednesday once again became a reason to put off buying groceries. And my colleagues were just the minority of tipped employees who make a decent wage — the majority of these workers have never averaged over $15 per hour with their tips.

The instability of living on tips and getting our full legal wage gets overlooked in this debate. Employers are supposed to ensure that each employee who works for the tipped wage gets the full minimum wage at the end of our shifts. If we have a slow day and earn less in tips than the current $10.10, our bosses are supposed to make up the difference, but many don’t. If we ask for our legal wages, we look like ungrateful and difficult employees who are not team-players and there can be consequences like reduced or less profitable shifts.

I was a cook while I was in university, subsidizing my student grants and loans. I had to leave the kitchen because the numbers just didn’t add up. There is no such thing as unskilled labor in a professional kitchen but wages hover near lowest end of the pay scale. My mentor, a Michelin-starred sous chef in Los Angeles, made $17 per hour, a premier wage in an industry where veterans with culinary degrees make about $14. The dishwashers worked the same hours for even less money but were responsible for the care and organization of every specialized piece of equipment in the restaurant.

Most of the unseen, untipped workforce had families to support and lived in three-generation households. All had two or more jobs. One coworker, a talented pastry cook, made $9.25 and slept in her car between shifts at two bakeries to help support her parents. Another colleague worked as a waiter and a baker to help his parents pay rent while he went to school to become a teacher.

At the James Beard-awarded restaurant, cooks started weekend prep on Thursday, then worked nearly without a break until the last dinner guest left Sunday night. Then they stayed until 2 a.m. to clean the kitchen for the coming week. They made between $10 and $14 and could not afford to miss any available work. They were exhausted, as were the servers, and that affected the diners’ experiences. If we made a base wage of at least $15, we could have rotated shifts amongst more staff members, allowing everyone crucial rest.

A lot of business owners are convinced their businesses will be harmed by this legislation. They are certain that investing in the people who make up their workforce, who create their product, who sell it and interface with the public, will harm their business. It is a fear-based and emotional assumption, unsupported by research or experience.

Low wages give workers a devastating self-image many of us struggle for years to escape. Economic insecurity destabilizes, distracts, and compromises the workforce. No business is stronger because their workforce is underpaid, overworked, and in constant fear of economic insecurity. Let’s lift workers and businesses by raising the wage for everyone – including tipped workers – to $15.

— Drew Koshgarian

The writer is a veteran restaurant worker who lives in Baltimore.


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Opinion: The Reality of Working for Tips