Barring extreme and most likely quite interesting circumstances, the reader of this article has eaten at a restaurant. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 647,646 private food service establishments in the U.S. in late 2018. As of July 2019, 12 million people work in the food service industry. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows how demanding the work is and how poor the compensation can be.
This article will discuss the realities of working in the food service industry specifically in Georgia. For those who are not familiar with the operation of a restaurant, let’s pull the curtain back a little and show what goes on with those who feed and serve people professionally.
Consider the number of people who are involved in a single order. There are hosts to seat the customers, bartenders to make drinks, cooks to make food, food runners to bring it to the table, dishwashers to clean all of the pots, pans, and plates dirtied in the process, servers to serve as the go-between for those mentioned and the patrons. All work together to serve hundreds of people a day, usually seven days a week (nights and weekends hardly ever excluded). Typically, the working conditions in restaurants are what many would consider less than ideal. Restaurant work is physical, fast-paced, and rarely involves sitting down. Not everyone is cut out for the work, and those who are rarely get respect for it.
Detta Franklin (who chose not to use her real name) has worked in the food service industry in Georgia for over 10 years, with roughly six of them as a server. She says she currently works close to 70 hours a week at a restaurant that “[doesn’t] provide you with any breaks … the longest [shift] I was on was 18 hours. No break and one meal.”
When asked if this was common policy, Franklin said, “It shouldn’t be and it’s not on paper, but it is practice.”
At best, this is poor management. At worst, it is blatant exploitation. In many cases, servers are not paid an hourly rate that is minimum wage. In Georgia, it is standard practice and legal to “pay employees who receive tips or gratuities a minimum wage of $2.13.” This results in servers not being compensated hourly, even if they have worked 70 hours in one week with the overtime wage being $3.20 an hour. The measures that have been put in place to discourage over-scheduling and actually compensate employees for working such extreme hours—namely overtime pay—doesn’t do nearly enough to compensate many servers and other tip-based employees.
“I have gotten a paycheck once and it was a mistake,” states Franklin. Generally, what constitutes hourly wages are canceled out by the taxes paid on the “tips or gratuities” earned while working. These servers’ real income are tips, which come directly at their customers’ discretion. Servers are not guaranteed tips, nor is there any promise of the volume of patrons the restaurant will host during a shift. “Last week, I worked [12 hours] and walked with 15 dollars,” Franklin recalls.
However, the dimensions of a server’s job are not limited to just making sales and serving customers, even though this is how they generate their income. In many establishments, servers “tip out” their co-workers, such as bartenders and cooks, from their own tips; thus, paying other employees’ wages without any money coming from the employer’s pocket. It is entirely possible that a server may end up owing money at the end of a shift, essentially paying for the time they took to be at work. Servers are also required to do “sidework,” which are other tasks that, due to the lower-than-minimum-wage hourly rate, amounts to unpaid labor.
This pay structure is fundamentally flawed and common practice in states that have the federal tipped minimum wage: it pushes the expenses of maintaining employees on the customers, thus allowing employers to pay their staff next to nothing with little reason to not work them as much as possible.
It’s important to recognize that while many people feel that tipping your server is an optional practice, for many this is their only source of income. Thus, not tipping is to refuse the server any compensation for their labor. Though it has been said before—and will be said again, as long as people are working for tips—it is important to remember: Every time a person chooses to eat at a restaurant they should be fully ready to tip their staff and do it well. Twenty percent is standard; and if that is not something a person is willing to do, they should not eat at a restaurant.
It’s almost important to realize this is not the case everywhere and it doesn’t have to be this way.
Emily Sargent worked in Georgia as a server for seven years before moving West where she still earns tips, but they are not her only source of income. “There is no difference between tipped wages and the state minimum wage,” claims Sargent, a restaurant manager and former server who now lives in Oregon. “Working for tips and still getting a check at the end of the week was a big change. When I was able to stop worrying about tips, I was surprised to find that I had an actual passion for the job.”
However, the mistreatment of food service staff goes beyond wages and income—and this burden does fall on the customer. To speak frankly, industry workers are often treated like shit. When asked to describe what a normal shift is like, Franklin states, “It is one of the most emotionally stressful things I can imagine. People will look at you like you killed their dog because you didn’t get them their drinks fast enough, which you aren’t even responsible for.”
And since most of a server’s income comes from tips, it is rare for servers to stand up for themselves, as they are aware they are dependent on their customers’ money and, furthermore, their discretion. “Even if someone is treating you like dogshit, you have to be nice to them,” Franklin continues. “Sometimes you get a table, and there is nothing you can do to make them happy.”
Working in such conditions is not without its tolls. The food service industry is well-known to have a substance abuse problem. A 2015 national survey on drug use and health showed that 16.9% of those employed in the hospitality and food service industry between 2008 and 2012 were reported to have a “substance abuse disorder” of some sort.
“My routine is, I come home after drinking a couple shots, driving home when I probably shouldn’t. Eat some food, cry myself to sleep, and go to bed, and do the same thing tomorrow,” says Franklin. “It’s not just me, it’s everyone.”
Dealing with such demanding and exploitative situations makes some see breaking social norms as a tangible form of rebellion towards a system staked against them. This might sound irresponsible to some, but that is pure food service industry logic.
Such habits may seem wild to outsiders, but anyone who has worked in food service is familiar with people who would say the same thing. Dealing with such demanding and exploitative situations makes some see breaking social norms as a tangible form of rebellion towards a system staked against them. This might sound irresponsible to someone who’s never worked in the restaurant industry, but that is pure food service industry logic.
“You don’t realize how normalized it all [is],” says Sargent. “One of my friends died on her birthday from being over-served at a bar where we worked and [was] allowed to drive away. She put two people in ICU and she’s not around anymore.”
Sargent then reflects on how in Oregon, she does not see the same prevalence of substance abuse. Perhaps more equitable and professional work environments encourage less destructive behavior. She believes that certain regulations, such as requiring those who serve alcohol to take classes and have a license to serve and stricter requirements on employers to compensate their employees with health insurance and higher minimum wages, are what makes a difference.
So instead of just complaining, what can be done?
“Living wages,” suggests Franklin. “Income [then] wouldn’t be based off the emotions of other people. People wouldn’t come into work and think, ‘Wow, I’m not going to make rent because I had three slow nights this week.’”
Many states like Oregon mandate that servers make state minimum wage, but Georgia isn’t one of them. An increase in minimum wage for all workers in New York didn’t destroy the food service industry as detractors of the wage hike argued, but instead emboldened the industry. Those who spread the ideas that higher wages harm the industry are those who will lose profit from paying laborers fairly. It is time to recognize that the interests of employers and owners are not in line with the interests of those they employ.
It’s also important to recognize the boundaries between customers and employers. Customers don’t mandate labor conditions or do payroll, and the duty of paying restaurant employees a living wage shouldn’t fall on them. The people accountable are restaurant owners and politicians. The National Restaurant Association, a lobbying group run by restaurant owners, has been actively opposing both a raise in the tipped minimum wage and a requirement for mandatory paid sick leave at a federal level, which it has been successfully implemented for over 20 years. Conversely, lawmakers have passed legislation that weakens the power of labor unions such as Right to Work laws that exist in Georgia and 26 other states.
Today, workers in the Southern food service industry are rarely given the treatment they are due. Anything close to decent working conditions seems to be a far-off fantasy, especially for those down here in the Deep South. However, the history of labor movements shows that progress occurs when workers themselves organize and take collective action—bargaining as a group and empowering workers to speak as one, rather than arguing with employers on an individual basis. The 40-hour work week, the establishment of the weekend, and child labor laws are but a few examples of worker protections won by organized labor.
To food service employees and others who feel powerless in the workplace and think they deserve better: you most certainly do. Maybe it’s time to talk with peers about how they feel about the conditions they work in. Maybe it’s time to think about how the workplace could be a better place for those who work there and how to work towards change, instead of dismissing the idea of labor protections in the industry altogether. It may seem like restaurant workers organizing is outlandish, but what’s truly absurd are the conditions that millions of people work under every day, in the food service industry and otherwise.
Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe it’s been that way for a long damned time. The way it will come about is by laborers gathering together and making a stand. Power comes from unity. Unity comes from communication. Get angry, get organized, get something better.