Political Animal


March 16, 2013 9:31 AM Why are working conditions for restaurant employees so bad?

By Kathleen Geier

Why is that working conditions for restaurant employees are so dismal? This eye-opening Salon article documents the grim details. Nearly one in ten workers in the U.S. is employed by the restaurant industry. And yet, consider the following:

— Union status among restaurant employees is exceedingly rare. According to one source quoted in the article, perhaps one percent of private sector restaurants are organized.

— Close to 90 percent of restaurant employees receive no paid sick days, vacation, or health insurance.

— Pay in the restaurant sector is appallingly low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among all employment categories, restaurant workers receive the lowest wages. In twelve states, workers who receive tips, like waiters or bartenders, are subject to a shockingly low minimum wage of $2.13 per hour — the lowest wage allowable by federal law.

— Employers routinely and increasingly violate the meager protections restaurant workers have, by illegally requiring tip pooling and engaging in wage theft.

— Customers are not so awesome, either. A significant number of customers undertip or refuse to tip at all, even though servers depend on tips as part of their wages. Customer’s reasons refusing to tip, as cited in the article, range from religious justifications,to libertarian arguments, to not liking the music the restaurant was playing, to not being turned on by the server’s boobs.

The a-hole customers that servers have to deal with were brought to mind the other day when I was reading this post by movie blogger Self-Styled Siren. In a film quiz, the Siren was asked to name “The classic movie moment everyone loves except me.” Her answer: this Jack Nicholson scene from Five Easy Pieces. Quoth the Siren: “Oh, you’re picking on an overworked, underpaid, middle-aged waitress. Vive la révolution!” You said it, sister! I always found that scene to be cruel and offensive — smug, male, upper middle class hipster entitlement at its most obnoxious.

In the scene I linked to, Jack Nicholson provides a case study of how not to treat a hard-working, undoubtedly stressed out and low paid restaurant worker. But how can you do an anti-Nicholson? In other words, what can you as a consumer do to help the waiters and the other restaurant staff who work so hard to serve you, cook for you, and clean up after you, day after day after day? Well, at minimum, they deserve simple human kindness and politeness — please and thank you; tolerance and forbearance when they screw up (hey, it happens, and we all do it); and decent tips (20% minimum).

You can also make an effort to patronize restaurants that treat their employees ethically. One way you can learn more about such restaurants is by checking out the guide to ethical eating prepared by ROC United, an organization that advocates on behalf of restaurant workers. The guide provides information on wage, benefit, and promotion practices at popular restaurants in nine major U.S. cities. The PDF of their guide is here; you can also download the iPhone app here and the Android app here.

I strongly urge you to check it out. Look: as Portlandia famously satirized (see below), your average foodie will ask way more questions about how humane the conditions were of the chicken they’re about to eat, then about the working conditions of waiter who is right in front of them. And I get that! I care about the humane treatment of animals, too — that’s why I don’t eat them. But since many of us taking the initiative to investigate the conditions of the food that ends up on our tables, shouldn’t we also care about the workers who help put it there?

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • MuddyLee on March 16, 2013 11:18 AM:

    Nice post, Kathleen. If you don't want to work for nothing, don't make your servers work for nothing - especially when they are young women who are single mothers. Get hip to the tip.

  • T-Rex on March 16, 2013 11:52 AM:

    Snubbing the wait-staff at the fundraiser where he gave his infamous "47%" speech may have cost Mitt Romney the election. It was the bartender who took that video, and he was pissed that Romney never said a word to the staff or thanked them.

  • gandalf on March 16, 2013 12:02 PM:

    Dear Kathleen- I agree with you 100% about the appalling pay for restaurant workers. But your bitching about the scene in five easy pieces is about as bubble headed as CPAC speaker. Did you even watch the movie? The waitress was a bitch and all Nicholson wanted was the simplest of request that anyone with the IQ of a grasshopper coulld have dealt with. Making a smarmy waitress who's giving exceedingly poor service into some kind of martyr is beyond simple minded.

  • PTate in MN on March 16, 2013 12:03 PM:

    Nice to have you here, Kathleen! I always appreciate your posts, both topics and perspective. This is another excellent one.

    I think the working conditions of restaurant workers is an outstanding argument for why "volunteerism" isn't the best way to organize social services in a complex modern society, whatever Paul Ryan and the Rightwingers may pretend. In a restaurant, someone has just performed a service (taking your order, bringing food to the table, clearing up) and there is a social norm that the customer should leave a tip of 10-20% for that service. And yet, despite the service and the norm, many customers refuse to leave a tip. If people can rationalize not giving in the clearly defined restaurant situation, where is the evidence that citizens would pick up the slack if conservatives manage to eliminate government-provided social services? Does anyone really believe that citizens will give of their time and money just out of the goodness of their heart, when they don't give now in payment for a service?

    In Europe, a gratuity of 15% is built in to the tab. That's what we should do here, too. Some things should not be dependent on the warm hearts and individual whims of customers.

  • UberMitch on March 16, 2013 12:16 PM:

    I'm most amazed that you managed to write this without mentioning Reservoir Dogs.

  • martin on March 16, 2013 12:19 PM:

    You would think the empathy tip would be standard and forthcoming. If you haven't been a server yourself, you know and are related to someone.

    I think it all comes down to the same question we have to ask about immigration: How much do you want to pay for what you eat?

    Along the Five Easy Pieces line, one of the things David Letterman used to do that I was always appalled by was to go to drive thru windows and be an ass to the servers stuck in minimum wage fast food jobs for the entertainment of his audience. It's one thing to go after corporate weasels, it's totally different to pick on the people at the bottom (picking on those on the bottom is Limbaugh's job).

  • Walker on March 16, 2013 12:25 PM:

    and decent tips (20% minimum).

    When did 20% replace the 15%? As tips scale with prices, it cannot be because of cost of living.

    I understand the concern about crappy customers, but this attempt to change consumer behavior is a losers game. Even with the current hostile legislative climate, we have a better chance of exempting tips from minimum wage so that servers have a better base pay in the first place.

  • c u n d gulag on March 16, 2013 12:31 PM:

    It wasn't always thus.

    Or else, I was probably pretty lucky when I was a bartender.

    In NY City, at least in the 80's, you could make some decent money working in a bar or pub that catered to the working class. The customers were almost univerally nice, and I made some good tips there.
    I also worked in some upper-scale restaurants, and the customers there, for the most part, were pretty nice, but a lot were cheap, entitled, @$$holes.

    Upstate NY, in the 90's, I worked in a nice pub for almost 7 years, and made a decent living.
    The shift money wasn't bad, by other places standards. And the owner offered affordable health care, and a retirement plan, as well as sick and vacation time.
    But again, this was a working people's bar.

    I think the 00's brought out the cheap, entitled, inner-@$$hole (aka: Conservative) in a lot of people.

    I was in NC for most of the 00's, and I had to lecture co-workers when I was back in the corporate world when we were in restaurants, about tipping. And about being nice to the staff. Basic stuff, if you're not an @$$hole.

    I think people know how little the wait and bar staff's make without tips. And I don't think they care.
    I just think that not tipping, just adds that extra-special cherry on top, of feeling superior to the workers.

    We need to pay restaurant workers a realistic minimum wage, with benefits, AND the opportunities for tips. Maybe then, we can lower the tip percentage to 10% (an easier amount to figureout for the imbeciles who can't divide by ten, and then divide that in half, and add it to the first amount - or, better yet, double it!), and make the entitled inner-@$$hole inside a lot of people happy, by feeling they're still superior, and are squeezing people.

    What the entitled inner-@$$holes don't realize, is what some unscrupulous, pissed-off waiter, waitress, and/or bartender can do.

    I never did it, but I've seen some pretty amazing things done to food and beverages, because the customer acted-up, and showed their inner-@$$hole, BEFORE they paid the bill.
    Let me just say that a lot of the activity involved bodily fluids - both liquid and solid, and some things involving toilet bowls, and cleaning products.

  • Milt on March 16, 2013 12:51 PM:

    20% tip! Why should a tip be based on the price of the food? I've had wonderful service when ordering a cup of coffee and a doughnut. And I've had terrible service when ordering a fifty dollar meal. No 20% tips. I base my tip on the effort and the time expended. Hence, I often tip a couple of bucks or more for that coffee and doughnut. For the typical dinner ($12-15 X 2), four to five dollars is a reflection of my appreciation.

  • Alison S on March 16, 2013 1:07 PM:

    While I have been lucky enough to never have to rely on tips, it drives me nuts when I am out with friends and they are cheap about tipping. I always calculate 15% on the total bill, including taxes, at an expensive restaurant and usually 20% at an inexpensive place. Fantastic service could merit a bit more. Service would have to be really bad to leave less. I am 68 and that has so rarely been necessary that I can't remember how many decades ago it happened.

    Everyone who works hard deserves to make a decent living.

  • David in NY on March 16, 2013 1:13 PM:

    Voluntarism doesn't work. That is, voluntary recycling, for example, doesn't result in any significant amount of recycled materials. Only when recycling is legally required, and enforced, does it work.

    Similarly here. Exhorting diners to give decent tips is a waste of time. If Bloomberg wanted to improved something other than people's waistlines, he would establish manadatory service charges added to restaurant bills, in the manner of service compris. To go to the servers of course, in addition to something more than 2.13 per hour. But stop wasting your breath otherwise. Voluntarism is a failure -- people are, and will always be, jerks.

    In return to the customers, Bloomberg should impose regulations about what a "glass" of wine is. My guess is that it varies between 5 dcl. and 10 dcl. and you never know what you're going to get. In France, as always, there's a rule. Ought to be one here as well.

  • Wayne on March 16, 2013 1:14 PM:

    If you put your tip on your credit card, many restaurants take the cc fee out of the tip. I always leave my tip in cash.

  • Six on March 16, 2013 1:18 PM:

    Those posting against tipping here are coming across as whiny self-entitled assholes who are trying to justify their selfish fuckheaded attitude. Tell you what, jackasses, if you feel that way about tipping, have the guts to tell your server when you first sit down at the table. Yeah, I thought so, you cowards.

  • smartalek on March 16, 2013 2:04 PM:

    Excellent post, thank you.
    One cavil, tho' -- it might have been more helpful to put the link to ROC United, and their various helpful tools, ABOVE the fold... or at least mentioned it at that point?
    I'm sure I'm not the only one who often doesn't click thru to the follow-up page.
    And I am always thrilled to find new sources of info that will help me make spending decisions more in line with my values and politics. Info like that is not easy to find.

  • smartalek on March 16, 2013 2:29 PM:

    And for you slime who won't tip appropriately (or at all -- must admit, I'm shocked to.find anyone but the occasional wingers trolls copping such attitudes here. Why yes, I was born just the other day. Why do you ask?), two things:
    1: by convention, common understanding, simple human decency, and, of course, the laws, tips are not just part of, but form the majority of, servers' compensation.
    If you can't afford an appropriate tip, you can't afford the meal.
    But it's worse than just that: at least for restaurants that use payroll services, the servers are taxed on a presumed percentage of their checks. Accordingly, if you tip nothing at all, you are literally costing your server for the joy of having served you, and you're complicit in the theft of money by the IRS from the server you've stiffed.
    B: if you ever revisit any restaurant at which you've ever stolen such service (that is what you're doing; own it), I hope you relish consuming the saliva, snot, or worse, of the offended server.
    Bon appetit, slime.

  • TomParmenter on March 16, 2013 2:43 PM:

    I checked the PDF guide. Out of 40 places with 'burger' or 'pizza' in the listing, only *one* had *any* creditable policies at all, IN-N-OUT Burger and they had three. Also, nowhere near here.

    As for Jack Nicholson, setting aside the jerk v. jerk behavior of waitress and patron, why would a restaurant not serve toast if requested? 'We have a policy of not giving in to customers'?

  • schtick on March 16, 2013 3:36 PM:

    I've worked for low wages and tips and I don't believe in the tipping policies that these places impose on people including their help. Tips are mandatory on bills now and I always thought tips were for service, etc. Let the businesses pay a decent wage. People that work those jobs deserve better wages and not be dependent on tips with all the crap they have to put up with from their customers. What's next? A 20% gratuity on the bill for getting your roof fixed because the contractor doesn't want to pay his help decent wages?

  • angler on March 16, 2013 3:49 PM:

    The comments above prove the point of Kathleen's post: a-hole customers are a big problem. If you are an inveterate cheapskate or have deluded yourself into thinking of tipping as a little something nice you do for servers and can therefore concoct your own idiosyncratic b.s. rules which add to you shorting the tip in the end, don't go out to eat!!! Tips are 20% of the bill or better, end of story.

  • b on March 16, 2013 3:49 PM:

    There's a great scene in the West Wing involving the ordering of lunch. I'm with Toby. (Couldn't find the scene on youtube, but here's a transcript)

    Toby is meeting with JOE FOX and BOB FOWLER in a restaurant. The waitress
    is trying
    to take their orders.

    I'll take the risotto, but I'd like it cooked with chicken broth instead of
    is that possible?


    And I'll like to substitute snow peas for the asparagus.

    I'll have the same, but I don't want the squash pureed with either cream or
    In fact it doesn't even have to be pureed.


    I'm just asking.

    It's pureed squash. If it's not pureed then it's just squash.

    [to the waitress] Butter's fine.

    He gives up his menu. The waitress turns to Toby.

    I'll have a New York steak and a ginger ale.

    Would you like that...?

    Just cook it.

  • emjayay on March 16, 2013 4:48 PM:

    There is nothing mysterious about low restaurant pay, particularly for the non-server workers. In a purely capitalistic system, wages are set entirely on supply and demand. Check the workers in the kitchen: all Hispanic immigrants or in the case of Asian restaurants, Asian immigrants (when they aren't Mexican), maybe a lot of them illegals. Hard work, hot environment, English speaking or literacy not required, high supply of workers who cannot get other jobs because of limited English and/or basic literacy and the requirement of being legal.

    In a more socialist (socialist lite, not the government owning the means of production classical definition) you have required living wages, sick leave, other work rules, tax paid health care for everyone, etc. We're just a lot closer to the purely capitalist side of things than a lot of other countries. (Anyone have a word for what I called socialist lite?)

    Walmart and Home Depot employment policies are similar for the same reason, with a somewhat smaller supply of workers because of the need for speaking English and usually being legal.

  • Doubting Thomas on March 16, 2013 5:37 PM:

    Why can't the restaurants be honest? Just say on the menus 'We pay crap wages so you the customer are expected to pay another 20% on top of your meal to maintain our profit'. Since the tip is not, as in Europe for good service but as with bankers' bonuses, an expectation although in completely different circumstances, the alternative is to stick 20% on the prices and pay the staff properly and with dignity instead of forcing them to beg.

  • Informant on March 16, 2013 5:37 PM:

    Regarding Five Easy Pieces, while I think Nicholson's final violent outburst was inappropriate, the waitress was an officious jerk given that he effectively offered to pay for an entire sandwich just for the sake of getting toast.

  • Keith M Ellis on March 16, 2013 5:49 PM:

    I waited tables for a number of years in the 80s, mostly at fine-dining. Most of the places I worked were right at the cusp where (at that time, I'm not sure how less true this is today) at more expensive restaurants above that line, there was an increasing bias against female servers. So, at the class of restaurant I tended to work at, there was a maximization of proportion of female servers in combination with income (relatively high menu prices).

    The composition of the serving staff tended to divide between those who were slightly younger and tended to be in university, and those who were slightly older, and essentially waited tables as their full-time career.

    It is with the latter that gender mattered a great deal. Because men and women in that group tended to be quite different, both in their present circumstances and in their future prospects. The men were almost always single and childless. The women were almost always single-parent mothers.

    While we all made relatively good income for our age and educational level, rarely did I work at a restaurant that offered any benefits whatsoever, particularly health insurance. Working nights, where there's substantially more income, the single mothers typically had to regularly pay for babysitters. On a slow night, this could represent a net loss.

    Furthermore, because of the bias against female servers in fine-dining and the strong sexist bias for young, attractive female servers, the long-term prospects of women working as servers was very poor. While a male like myself could reasonably aspire to moving to working at the very best restaurants and making a reasonably well-paying career of it, this was generally not an option for women. Typically, while they might work at fine dining or thereabouts in their twenties, by their thirties and forties they would move down the prestige restaurant ladder, and their income would decrease.

    This, more than anything — and much more than my own personal experience working for tips — caused me to feel very strongly about treating servers well and tipping them well.

    Frankly, despite all the negatives about serving, including lack of benefits and such, I think on balance I was overpaid, especially relative to the rest of the restaurant staff. On average, I made four or more times that of the kitchen staff, and usually more than management.

    But when you look at this in the larger perspective, and look beyond the pretty young people who are in university and waiting tables part-time, you find that for everyone, male and female, this is a risky, very low job security work, with little or no benefits, and for most people there's no long-term career prospects. But particularly for women it's, well, a trap.

    I tip all servers well, but I do so because I especially have in mind all those single mothers who are paying babysitters, have no health insurance, and rather than developing long-term career prospects, are going to find that in fifteen years they're working at late-night diners for a pittance. And probably still paying babysitters and still lacking health insurance.

    Mind you, if you're being served by someone that describes as they are now, you'd best tip them well because they work hard and their life is hard.

  • N.Wells on March 16, 2013 6:04 PM:

    As much as I sympathize with the restaurant staff, tipping sucks. I would much prefer the model of including a service charge on the bill. We also have perfectly good models in other sectors of the economy for either the employer paying the staff appropriately and adding that to the cost of the product, or paying for parts and labor as two separate items on a bill.

  • Hannah on March 16, 2013 6:21 PM:

    My hubby delivered Domino's Pizza back in the early 80's while he was going to college. I think he was paid minimum wage but had to buy his own gas and use his own car. He would come home with these stories about customers. The delivery area was quite diverse... he told me about the Harley bikers who were staying in the flea bag motel who gave him a $5 tip. And the time he delivered to a home in a very well-to-do neighborhood. The "lady" of the house and her maid had both ordered pizzas for themselves: the "lady" of the house gave him no tip, while the maid gave him $2.

  • TomParmenter on March 16, 2013 6:32 PM:


    What you call 'socialism lite' is called 'social democracy', what they have in capitalist countries (often with royal families) like Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and many more.

  • smartalek on March 16, 2013 8:53 PM:

    "Anyone have a word for what I called socialist lite?"

    "Simple human decency"?
    No, wait -- that's three words.
    I'll think on it.

  • Guscat on March 16, 2013 8:54 PM:

    One thing not mentioned in this article is that in many restaurants that tip pool you tip on a percentage of your sales so if someone stiffs you you actually lose money on them both because you are tipping out on their meal and the government is taxing you bases on what they are assuming you make. (I actually work at a restaurant that ethically treats its employees. We have health insurance and vacation pay but the place I worked before treated us badly until ROC stepped in and stopped the worst practices.)

  • Michael O'Hare on March 17, 2013 2:23 AM:

    Obviously one tips as long as that's part of the deal, but it's a wretched system in every way.

  • Alex on March 17, 2013 9:59 AM:

    I take very strong issue with one of your points. Tip pooling is a pretty good system for restaurant employees (as long as it's not a corrupt manager doing the counting). It prevents favoritism (e.g., employee x always gets the busiest tables during the busiest shifts), it prevents aggressive servers from taking advantage of their coworkers (again, by grabbing the better tables during the busy shifts), and it prevents a kind of Ayn Randian meritocracy (fastest employees get the most tips). I'd much rather work somewhere where tips are pooled than somewhere where everyone's just pocketing their tips. As a restaurant worker, I wish you'd delete that point, because if managers or policy-makers were to follow/enforce it, it would make my job worse.

  • Alex on March 17, 2013 10:14 AM:

    But yeah, tipping is, as many have pointed out, redistribution of risk from management to staff. It means, on the one hand, that a server can potentially make MUCH more than they would make through wages. As a server in NYC, I would say that that's the case for most of us who work in anything more upscale than diners; I do just fine for myself, as does every server I work with. But with my bartending job in North Carolina, I made minimum wage or less, because tips were often crap, and the management wouldn't (despite it being required by law) supplement our checks if we made under minimum wage on a shift. It's a very class-dividing mode of pay: those who are lucky enough to work in high-volume or high-price places are going to make out well. Everyone else gets the shaft. (Also, culture plays a big role. I'd rather work at a barbecue joint in NY than a 5 star restaurant in Houston).

  • zandru on March 17, 2013 1:06 PM:

    "he was pissed that Romney never said a word to the staff or thanked them."

    No, Romney said quite a few words to them. When he first arrived, Romney made a point of ordering them around rather rudely. Not a word of thanks, and no apparent recognition that directing the hired staff was something only the HOST of the private meeting was entitled to do.

    But I think you're right - that video cost Romney the election.

  • Steve P on March 17, 2013 1:08 PM:

    Barbara Ehrenreich covered most of this material in "Nickled and Dimed"--and yes, every waitress I know confirms the sh*theel stinginess of Sunday after-church lunch crowds.

    As for "Five Easy Pieces", you'll be pleased but not surprised to know that Studs Turkel stood up and shouted "You SOLIPSISTS!" at a showing when that scene was cheered. And if you haven't seen it in 30+ years, you may not have noticed that Nicholson was playing a self-centered creep.

  • Keith M Ellis on March 18, 2013 2:15 AM:

    "Also, culture plays a big role. I'd rather work at a barbecue joint in NY than a 5 star restaurant in Houston."

    I'm not sure the cultural differences work in the way that they suppose. The most money I made waiting tables in the 80s was in Amarillo, Texas, at the nicest, most-expensive restaurant in town. It was absurdly ostentatious and continental ... that was the point. And the clientele leaned heavily in the direction of those who selected this place specifically for the purpose of displaying their wealth. I usually served several bottles of Dom or Cristal every night. I frequently received fifty-percent tips on three-figure bills.

    There certainly are regional cultural differences in the US with regard to tipping and, generally, how service workers are treated. But my observation is that the socioeconomic class differences overwhelm regional differences.