There’s no way to say this delicately, so I’m just going to come out and say it: tipping food servers is wrong. It’s messed up, unfair and appalling. Of course you should tip your servers if you eat out, but it’s clear the whole system is rigged against those who try to work in the restaurant industry. It needs to end. Hawaii, though known nationally as a progressive place to live and work, is anything but when it comes to compensating restaurant workers properly.
As anyone who’s worked in the restaurant industry knows, in 43 states (including Hawaii), there are actually two minimum wages for workers. There’s the regular one, which varies nationwide but currently stands at $8.50/hour in Hawaii, and then there’s the minimum wage for people who work in jobs in which they might be tipped. In Hawaii, the tipped minimum wage is $7.75/hour, but will eventually rise to 9.35/hour on Jan. 1, 2018 (by then, the standard minimum wage in Hawaii will be $10.10/hour).
This difference in wages is a problem. Yes, the tipped minimum wage here is better than in some states, where it stands at a mere $2.13/hour (the federal minimum wage, which hasn’t changed in decades). That wage is so absurdly low that a worker making that actually receives a paycheck marked “THIS IS NOT A PAYCHECK” because all their income went to taxes.
“Many people assume that low wages in the restaurant industry are concentrated in the fast-food segment of the industry,” writes Saru Jayaraman, the director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, in her new book Forked: A New Standard for American Dining. “Unfortunately, this is not the case. Workers in all segments of the industry, in all positions and of all racial and gender backgrounds work and live in poverty in the restaurant industry. Wages for kitchen workers are abysmal, and, unbeknownst to many, income for workers serving customers on the dining floor–workers who earn tips–is no better.”
For Hawaii, this is especially important. According to the Hawaii Restaurant Association, slightly more than 90,000 residents work for restaurants in Hawaii–15 percent of the state’s entire labor pool (nationally, restaurant workers make up 10 percent of the labor market). What’s more, the HRA projects $4.5 billion in projected Hawaii restaurant sales this year.
Add to that a new study published by the Pew Research Center last month that showed Hawaii has the sixth highest cost of living in the United States. It’s a remarkable 23.9 percent higher than the national average (Illinois, the state with the highest cost of living, is 34.6 percent above the national average).
On top of that, in the last few years both Roy’s and Pineapple Grill got in trouble with the state Labor Department for forcing servers to share their tips with kitchen staff–a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Add to that a general lack of paid sick days, which is a public health hazard. And let’s not forget that the whole practice of tipping leads inexorably to increased sexual harassment. “Seven percent of American women work in restaurants, but 37 percent of all sexual harassment complaints to the EEOC come from the restaurant industry,” Jayaraman noted in Forked.
Clearly, unquestionably, Hawaii needs to get rid of tipped minimum wages. There should be one minimum wage for all employees, regardless of whether they get tips.
On May 9, I spoke with Jayaraman by phone about her new book and how Hawaii is far behind some states in treating restaurant workers fairly (Disclosure: I went to high school with Jayaraman, though we didn’t know each other there. In any case, we’ve had no contact with each other since at least 1990).
MAUITIME: So why did you write Forked?
SARU JAYARAMAN: I wrote another book called Behind the Kitchen Door in 2013. It was about all the things people don’t know about restaurants. I did a book tour, and there was so much demand for this information. We also put out a diners’ guide for a couple years. Oxford asked me to put that into a book. There’s a handful of folks who are doing it right–about 200 people doing it right nationally. The more we communicate our values, the more restaurant owners will take the high road. We’re seeing some of the highest-profile restaurants starting to go the high road.
MT: Why is that?
SJ: With the Fight for 15, the restaurant industry has had to deal with this. There’s also a new generation of restaurant owners who’ve been schooled outside of the old ways. And the industry is facing the biggest labor shortage they’ve ever experienced. People just can’t survive working this way. The unsustainability of the business model is catching up and they’re having to deal with it.
MT: How does Hawaii compare with the rest of the nation?
SJ: Hawaii uses something called a “total compensation model” to decide how tipped workers can be paid. It’s very convoluted, and says basically that if tipped workers make a certain amount, they can be paid less. It just works out to be the same thing: employers can pay less.
MT: Yes, I see that. According to the state of Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, “an employer may pay tipped employees less than the applicable minimum wage if the tipped employee customarily and regularly receives more than $20 a month in tips and the combined amount of wages and tips is more than the applicable minimum wage…”
SJ: The whole system is just totally impossible to enforce. Hawaii is different from the other states, but we consider it one of the 43 states [that stills pays tipped workers a lower minimum wage].
MT: Now Hawaii’s tipped minimum wage is $7.75. How does that compare with other states?
SJ: Most people in the industry get paid the federal tipped minimum wage, which is $2.13 an hour. That means they get a paycheck that says, “This is not a paycheck,” because all their wages went to taxes. It’s crazy. The two-tiered wage system is also really hard to enforce. It’s the most absurd thing to enforce. It’s ridiculous!
MT: In terms of paid sick leave, Hawaii is also behind other states. Bills mandating it usually die in committee in the state Legislature. Here’s a quote from the Hawaii Restaurant Association’s testimony against Senate Bill 2456, which died in committee in February: “This will be another mandated benefit that will greatly increase the economic burden on the businesses and at the same time create additional administrative work such as managing the accumulated benefits that small businesses do not normally have big administrative staff to do.”
SJ: They [the restaurant associations] have so much power. If the District of Columbia, Massachusetts and New York can move in this direction, then Hawaii can. Not having paid sick days is pathetic–it’s a sign of power of the restaurant association. Most restaurants are sympathetic to this.
MT: But giving restaurant workers paid sick leave is a no-brainer! Sick people serving food is a public health hazard!
SJ: It is.
MT: At the end of Forked, you talk about a new smartphone Diner’s Guide app you’ve launched. It lists restaurants around the country that have done away with the tipped minimum wage, offer paid sick leave and so forth, but has no listings for any place in Hawaii.
SJ: We only have 200 or so restaurants that we know are doing it right. We want consumers to encourage restaurants to join. Every employer can take the high road.
MT: So what should Hawaii residents who patronize restaurants do?
SJ: Whenever you eat out, at the end of the meal ask to speak to the manager. Say that you’ve loved the meal, but then ask questions like “Do you provide paid sick days to your employees?” and “Do you pay more than the tipped minimum wage?” If they don’t, tell them that, as a regular customer, you’d like to see them join RAISE, which offers a different way of doing business. We’ve had lots of restaurant owners join the association because of customers. They’ve changed their business practices and raised their wages.
MT: The modern history of tipping–specifically, its racist beginnings in post-Civil War America–that you wrote about in Forked and in your 2015 New York Times op-ed surprised me. Did it surprise you, too?
SJ: Yes. We were always opposed to the tipped minimum wage, and called it a slave wage, but then we found out that it really was a slave wage.
MT: Are conditions getting better for people who work in service industry jobs?
SJ: Absolutely. I definitely think we’re headed in the right direction. We’re seeing a massive shift in the industry.
By Saru Jayaraman
Oxford University Press, New York, 2016