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The Federal Minimum Wage Keeps Restaurant Workers on Food Stamps

Restaurant servers use food stamps at twice the rate of the general workforce, and the restaurant industry vividly captures the worst aspects of our economy: being surrounded by food but not being able to afford to eat.
Photo via Flickr user Thomas Hawk

With income inequality and support for raising the minimum wage at an all-time high, the restaurant industry vividly captures some of the worst aspects of our economy: being surrounded by food but not being able to afford to eat. In fact, servers use food stamps at twice the rate of the general workforce, meaning that the people who put food on our tables struggle to feed themselves.

Claudia is one of the 13 million people whose salary depended on our collective love of the restaurant-going experience. Claudia moved from Monterey, Mexico, to Austin when she was a teenager. In many ways, Texas had already moved to Mexico; border crossings were more relaxed in the 70s and Claudia's family routinely bought groceries in the United States, where stores were cheaper. But drug-related crimes were crossing the border into Mexico, and poverty was spreading. At 15, Claudia used a tourist visa to move to Austin where her two older siblings had already migrated. Her siblings were always working, and she was lonely most of the time. She wanted to join the dance team, but it was too expensive for her family to afford, so when she heard that a restaurant was hiring, she applied right away.


The manager quickly offered her a job as a server. But Claudia was still working on her English and was self-conscious. "I said, 'Shouldn't I do something else?' He responded with, 'No, you can serve Latino customers.' But that didn't happen," says Claudia. With her rudimentary English, Claudia waited on tables and customers complained. And then they wouldn't tip. Claudia was being paid just $2.13 per hour, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. Although the restaurant was supposed to make up the difference between the tipped minimum wage and the regular minimum wage — $7.25 an hour — if tips weren't covering it, the manager threatened and intimidated her and said she would get in trouble if she didn't make enough in tips. When she didn't make enough, she was told to report otherwise so the restaurant wouldn't have to pay. She she did as her manager wanted.

Claudia had her eyes set on college. She worked really hard in high school, but as graduation quickly approached, she realized that she wasn't sure if undocumented people could even attend. Luckily, she crossed paths with Alejandra, an advisor from the Austin Independent School district, who specialized in helping undocumented students get to college. Although reluctant at first, Claudia ended up attending what Alejandra called an "academic boot camp" at Prairie View A&M University; the top three students at the end of the summer would receive a full-ride scholarship. The university's president, Charles Hines, was sympathetic to the struggles faced by new immigrants, and was committed to making sure they received a college education. Just recently recovered from a brain aneurysm, Claudia's mother used her tourist visa to attend her graduation from the summer academy. "I didn't know I had won the scholarship," says Claudia. "When they announced that I'd won, my mom was crying." She managed to scrape together living expenses with the help of her friends and family to attend college, then moved on to getting her master's degree—this time, without a scholarship. In order to afford the cost of school, she found work at a national chain restaurant.

Like déjà vu, Claudia was earning just $2.13 an hour and living off tips, which were rare since she often worked the late night shift, where customers were scarce. Claudia was the only Latina server in the restaurant, and she and the two black women who also worked there were regularly passed up for banquet events—rare opportunities that paid higher-than-average tips. And rather than pay the difference between $2.13 and the overall minimum wage of $7.25, the restaurant, just like she experienced as a high school student, forced Claudia to lie about how much she earned in tips or else lose her job, a threat she accepted because of her undocumented status and the unlikeliness of her finding a job elsewhere. Working five to six days a week, Claudia's $2.13 an hour amounted to just $10 total after taxes. On most days, she would make $30 or $40 in tips. She used that money to pay for books, car payments, and gas to drive the 20 miles to school. For food, she depended on the shift meal from work. "I had to eat less than $6.50 for the employee meal," says Claudia. "If I wanted an omelette, I went over $6.50. I could only afford pancakes. If you were on the schedule for only five hours, you couldn't get a meal. There were days when I wouldn't eat all day."

The last time Claudia found herself working in that restaurant was the day she walked out, when her manager forced her to pay the restaurant $98 because customers from the night before walked out without paying during her shift. She made $80 in tips that night. The manager took all of it, and told her she still owed the restaurant $18.

She rushed out to her car and cried.