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Some In The Food Industry Want To Stay With A Subminimum Wage — But Plenty Don't

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two dollars and 13 cents an hour - that is the federal minimum wage for people who make tips, like barbers, valets and waiters. The most recent Democratic proposal to hike the minimum wage would eventually require businesses to pay every worker at least $15 an hour, whether or not they make tips. That is a controversial idea even among workers, especially in the restaurant industry. NPR's Sam Gringlas reports.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Jillian Melton's life is busy. She has five kids...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Laughter).

GRINGLAS: ...So she's usually juggling school pickup and sports with her job as a server. Melton got laid off during the pandemic. Before that, she worked at a chain called Seasons 52 in Tennessee.

JILLIAN MELTON: Or you come to me to celebrate a birthday or anniversary, or you come to me and not even knowing that you might need someone to listen to you, someone to get you a really nice glass of wine and give you a moment of peace.

GRINGLAS: But getting by mostly on tips was hard. If servers don't make enough tips to hit the regular minimum wage that other kinds of hourly workers make, the restaurant is supposed to pay the difference. But Melton says her take-home pay varied a lot, like if she had a slow night. And that shaped her whole life.

MELTON: I've missed track meets. I've missed baseball games because I needed to work, even though I planned to be off tonight because yesterday went so terrible.

GRINGLAS: The lower hourly wage for tipped workers is a relic of the Jim Crow era, when businesses tried to avoid paying a full wage to African Americans and women. People of color and women today make up a huge chunk of the tipped workforce. Discrimination has persisted, and Melton says bias can affect whether she gets a good tip.

MELTON: Having to worry about whether or not I'm going to make sufficient funds for the work that I'm putting in - it's archaic.

GRINGLAS: But there are also servers who see it differently and don't want the tip credit to change. They worry if restaurants have to pay the full cost of labor, they'd cut hours or lay people off. Plus, restaurants were already slugged by the pandemic. Laurie Torres has seen it up close.

LAURIE TORRES: Welcome to Mallorca. It's nice to see you again.

GRINGLAS: Torres owns Mallorca in Cleveland. It's been open 25 years.

TORRES: Most restaurants have very, very small margins. For me, there's times when there's no profit. It's about survival. It's about making sure that I can employ all of my staff and wait for the better days.

GRINGLAS: At upscale spots, waiters can make a lot of money. Many earn more than $15 an hour with tips. Torres says the business model works. Why blow it up?

TORRES: The tip credit represents our economic system. Hard work means more money. And to take that away, you're hurting the very people that you're trying to help.

GRINGLAS: Server Karim Soumah works at Cork, a Washington, D.C., wine bar. He says tips make it possible to build a good life. They have helped waiters pay for college or buy a home.

KARIM SOUMAH: The tip wage is very advantageous if you work at the right place.

GRINGLAS: Soumah says restaurants should pay a fair hourly wage and allow tips. The Biden proposal would not ban tipping, though some servers worry people would stop doing it. Soumah disagrees.

SOUMAH: I don't know if the American consumer comes into a restaurant and says, oh, Lord, I know that they're making at least $12 an hour. They don't deserve anything extra.

GRINGLAS: Others want to do something more radical - eliminate tipping entirely - like Chef Yia Vang in Minneapolis. He's opening up his first brick-and-mortar, Vinai.

YIA VANG: We just cleaned everything up, moved everything out.

GRINGLAS: Growing up, Vang worked a bunch of restaurant jobs - cook, dishwasher, prep. Those back-of-house workers usually make far less than waiters, who make tips.

VANG: I never questioned it. You're just like, hey; this is the way it is.

GRINGLAS: But as Vang rose through the ranks, he did start to question it. So now he'll compensate all his staff more, menu prices will probably be higher, and tipping won't be an option. Other restaurants have tried it. It's worked in some, failed in others. But Vang wants to give it a shot.

VANG: I personally want to really get rid of that front of the house, back of the house. We're working for one house here. And to do that, you have to start digging into some of these systemic issues that nobody really talks about because it's like, well, you know, that's just how the industry works.

GRINGLAS: And like Vang, many in Washington want to shake up the system, too.

Sam Gringlas, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.