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Restaurant Workers in the US Are Flat Broke

According to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute, there’s a 40 percent chance that the waiter who served you lunch is living twice below the poverty line.
Photo via Flickr user _Bunn_

When we hear "ramen," we don't immediately think of the 69-cent brick of noodles we cooked in microwaves during our poor college days—nowadays, we think of Ivan Orkin and creamy pork bone broth. But there's a good possibility that those who actually serve you a $15 bowl of noodles are still living off those deep-fried, processed pucks of carbohydrates.

In fact, there's a 40 percent chance that the waiter at your favorite haunt is living below twice the poverty line. One in six of them is below the poverty line itself—only $11,670 for individuals in the contiguous US.


According to a study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, the restaurant industry has been growing steadily since 1990, employing over 10 million people today. But wages haven't followed this growth. The median hourly wage of a restaurant worker is $10 an hour, including tips, compared to $18 an hour for those outside the industry—and that's taking into account managers, who earn a "high" hourly wage of $15.42 on average.

Moving down the food chain, it gets worse. If you're female, Hispanic, or black, your prospects are even more bleak. According to the study, you're most likely working as a cashier, dishwasher, host, or busser, and you're raking in $9 an hour or less.

And then there's the most exploited group of employees—undocumented workers—who make up 15.7 percent of the restaurant industry, with a third of that group working as a dishwasher, making $8.62 an hour on average. The study warns that it "likely undercounts undocumented immigrants to some extent, meaning that the shares of non-naturalized immigrants are likely understated." Because those workers aren't totally above board, it's difficult to calculate exactly how many there are and how little they make.

To fix these issues, the study suggests reforming policies, such as increasing minimum wage and saying goodbye to tipped minimum wage (for the ladies, who are much more likely to hold tipped positions than men). Even more important for some is eliminating wage theft for undocumented workers, who often find themselves victims of unscrupulous employers.

But the next time you tuck into a plate of pan-fried magret breast with a port wine reduction, remember that the hostess who seated you might be going home to a dinner of knock-off Cheerios and a banana.