The hands that feed us

It’s not just waitstaff – chefs (unless you own the restaurant) are getting paid peanuts, too:

Many people in the nascent food movement and in the broader “foodie” set know our farmers’ (and their kids’) names and what their animals eat. We practically worship chefs, and the damage done to land, air and water by high-tech ag is — correctly — a constant concern.

Yet though you can’t be a card-carrying foodie if you don’t know the provenance of your heirloom tomato, you apparently can be one if you don’t know how the members of your wait staff are treated. We don’t seem to mind or even notice that our servers might be making $2.13 an hour. That tip you debate increasing to 20 percent might be the difference in making the rent.

It’s true that a bit of attention has been paid to farmworkers — with some good results — and occasionally you read about the horrors of life in a slaughterhouse. But despite our obsession with food, the worker is an afterthought.

The Hands That Feed Us, and the work being done on the ground by groups like ROC-U — which contributed to the report and helped create the Food Chain Workers Alliance in 2008 — may signal the beginning of a change.

Take that $2.13 figure, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. Legally, tips should cover the difference between that and the federal minimum wage, now a whopping $7.25. If they don’t, employers are obligated to make up the difference. But that doesn’t always happen, leaving millions of servers — 70 percent of whom are women — taking home far less than the minimum wage.

Which brings us to the happily almost-forgotten Herman Cain. What’s called the “tipped minimum wage” — that $2.13 — once increased in proportion to the regular minimum wage. But in 1996, the year Cain took over as head of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), he struck a deal with President Bill Clinton and his fellow Democrats. In exchange for an increase in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage was de-coupled. The result: despite regular increases in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage hasn’t changed since 1991.

Other disheartening facts: Around one in eight jobs in the food industry provides a wage greater than 150 percent of the regional poverty level. More than three-quarters of the workers surveyed don’t receive health insurance from their employers. (Fifty-eight percent don’t have it at all; national health care, anyone?) More than half have worked while sick or suffered injuries or health problems on the job, and more than a third reported some form of wage theft in the previous week. Not year: week.

6 thoughts on “The hands that feed us

  1. Christ. I am an idiot. I didn’t even know there was a different minimum wage for tipped workers. Thanks for the education. I guess I’m pretty good proof of what the article says about ignorance. I’m going to be less chintzy about tips, even though that’s nothing but a bandaid on a cancer.

  2. if you’re eating in a relatively expensive restaurant in a metro area, the servers are probably getting paid pretty well – and by that i mean twice or more what the person who makes the food is getting.

  3. I wonder if Herman Cain paid his mistresses $2.13 an hour for their services.

    dd: in support of your statement, I knew an ex-waiter at a semi-fancy hotel in Pittsburgh. About a dozen years ago he was making over $60k annually, but his body couldn’t take it so he quit to go into management at the same place, taking a 50% pay cut in the process.

  4. Yep, I was a waitress when I was in college. I never made minimum wage in straight pay. But I regularly exceeded that amount in tips- because I was really, really good. It’s hard to believe how bad servers are today. You wait forever to get served, they forget about you, they don’t seem to anticipate your needs….where was I?
    Oh. Yeah, nowadays, your tips must be reported. Sure we used to do this and kinda underreport. Not any more. If the IRS suspects that a restaurant is under reporting, they do an audit of the staff’s tips for awhile. And if they find that they have a case, they send you a bill. Happened to my eldest daughter when she worked at a Denny’s while she was at the Culinary Institute of America. Believe it or not, it is possible to receive a negative amount in your paycheck.
    And while tips are good, you can’t really live on them unless you wait tables full time. Personally, I think it would be very hard to wait tables full time. It’s physically exhausting and even the best of us wanted to strangle high maintenance customers on occasion.

  5. Dd, the only reason why the front of the house is making more money is because of the tip scheme. That means they are somewhat at the mercy of weather, bad moods and poor cooks. Their pay is variable from day to day and shift to shift. Cooks don’t usually worry about being short. They know what they’re going to make. There’s security in that.
    Then there are the tips from the tips. If you want to keep your customers happy, you need to tip bartenders, busboys and runners. Failure to do so will decrease your tip flow so. In fact, if you want to teach people economics and the benefits of cooperativity, put them to work in a restaurant. They’ll get it pdq, quicker than they would in any of Krugman’s classes.

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