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The Other NRA – redux

This was originally published in October of 2013 in wait(er) Magazine but as the subject is heating up again, I thought it was worth revisiting.

The current federal hourly rate for tipped employees stands at $2.13. Yep, you read that correctly.

In fact, it’s been stuck at $2.13 since 1991.

You can pick your jaw up off the ground now.

In all fairness, while that federal amount has remained frozen, the ultimate minimum wage burden has been pushed down to the state; and the states vary in how they handle tipped and non-tipped minimum wage employees. If you are scratching your head, wondering how the federal baseline can be so low, you can thank the NRA.

Nope, not the National Rifle Association. The OTHER NRA, the National Restaurant Association.

Thanks to 2012 Republican Presidential candidate, and former National Restaurant Association head, Herman Cain, it’s quite conceivable that it will stay at $2.13. You see, way back in 1996 during minimum wage increase negotiations in Congress, then NRA honcho Cain said, “We (the NRA) won’t oppose the overall minimum wage continuing to go up as long as the minimum wage for tipped workers stays frozen (wait for it)…forever.”

Can’t you just hear the diabolical chortling?

Why the head of a lobbying firm (Cain), and not an elected official, was able to wield this sort of influence should alarm you. It probably doesn’t, but it should. The National Restaurant Association is the tenth largest lobbying firm in the country and they tend to lobby on the conservative side.

There is something inherently Dickensian about strong-arming Congress in 1996 to keep the federal tipped minimum wage frozen…forever. Imagine Ebenezer Scrooge was a restauranteur and not just an asshole (what did he do anyway).

The other NRA, led by Herman Cain, was successful in their lobbying endeavor…and throwing a huge chunk of the American public into poverty in the process.

The restaurant industry has so many elephants in the room that it would be a Sisyphean task to address them all in one article. But a good place to start is the hourly wage.

Servers rely on tips to live. It’s worth noting that when tipping was first introduced in this country, it was met with “impassioned and organized opposition”. In an NYTimes article by Paul Wachter from 2008, he states that “…tipping is almost antithetical to the democratic ideal because it truly began as an aristocratic practice, a sprinkle of change for social inferiors.

Thanks to Herman Cain and his battalion of bastards at the other NRA back in 1996, not much has changed.

However, when the aristocrats aren’t around to sprinkle the change or it’s a slow day or you’re sick, it’s that hourly wage that the wait staff rely on. It helps offset those days. Well, it should anyway.

I once was a bartender at a restaurant where I had to rely solely on a shift wage because there was literally no, and I mean NO, bar service. The only food I got were the two shift meals. I barely made enough in shift pay for gas to get to work. Bills were always late. It was horrible because that shift wage was before taxes.

According to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the United States are restaurant jobs. With 10 million restaurant workers in the U.S., is it any wonder that the poverty rate among restaurant employees is three times that of the non-restaurant workforce?

Did you know that food servers use food stamps at double the rate of the U.S. workforce?

There is a small, but growing, movement among independently owned American full service restaurants to do away with tipping entirely. In some cases, it would mean the elimination of the tip entirely and the service cost being rolled into the menu. In others, it would be simply presented on the bill to the customer, and the customer is then responsible for the total amount.

What a dream it would be to go out to dinner and simply pay the bill. To not have to break out the abacus to do some sort of math calculation that must somehow factor in some sort of job approval rating while fitting in with social mores.

The tips that servers make per shift vacillates and, as we all know, paying bills like rent and food don’t. Unfortunately, the majority of tipped employees work for large restaurant corporations and these corporations are closely tied to, and big supporters of, wait for it…the other NRA. This affiliation and their steadfast commitment to keeping the hourly wage (or should we say rage) at $2.13 all but insures that the poverty rate for servers will remain at three times the rest of the United States.

Let me reiterate, the poverty rate of servers is three times the rest of the United States.

As the service based industry continues to swell during this seemingly never-ending recovery, the employment within the restaurant industry continues to grow. In 2013 alone food service jobs represented “… the 14th consecutive year in which the restaurant job growth outpaces the overall economy.

That alone, an amazing statistic. Paired with the fact that food servers generally exist below the poverty line, not so amazing and much more alarming.

It seems to me we can kill two birds with one stone by simply raising the minimum wage among tipped employees.

One bird we could kill would be the bloviating about welfare abuse. It would seem to me that if tipped employees live below the poverty rate at three-times the non-restaurant workforce and food servers use food stamps at double the rate of U.S. workforce, raising the rate on a Federal level from $2.13 would help alleviate that…but probably not the right-wing braying.

The other, more esoteric bird, is that this adjustment would have a profound impact on such a large amount of the population that it would go a long way towards moving us back towards the democracy we were set up to be.

An added bonus is that it would move a large number of people from poverty into the middle class.

If the restaurant industry continues to grow as projected, simple math tells us that without addressing the wage issue in some capacity, more and more people will sink into poverty.

There is plenty of blame to go around on how far we have slipped as a culture and a democracy. And certainly there is plenty of blame within the restaurant industry as to why their coffers grow and the employee’s standard of living or quality of life does not.

A good place to start the blame game would be at the tenth largest lobbying firm in Washington D.C., the other NRA, the National Restaurant Association. What kind of dick lobbies to keep a minimum wage frozen at $2.13, forever. That takes being an asshole to a whole new level.

And if a total re-alignment of the industry and the eradication of the tipping standard is not possible (and they’re not) then it’s up to the corporations to step up and take responsibility.

Yea, I guess we all know how that ends up.

So look, the next time you feel like you have had shitty service or something happens where you feel the server doesn’t deserve a tip OR you are one of these dolts who feels that 10% is a decent tip, please reconsider that. A decent tip amount should really be between 17-20% of the TOTAL bill. End of discussion.

Sources:
Minimum Wage Mythbusters
ROC United
Resaurant.org (seriously NRA, a non-profit?!)
IWW