by Jessica Swim, Women Employed Advancement Coordinator
Have you ever wondered what it’s really like to be a tipped worker? If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans who have worked or currently work in the service industry, you don’t have to wonder. But for those who don’t, it can be hard to see the full picture in your average restaurant outing or hotel stay. As a former restaurant server and bartender, I’ve seen a lot of what happens behind the scenes and how it impacted the people I’ve worked alongside. I’d like to share some insights into what it’s really like.
Of course, across the country, state, and city, experiences vary. A job downtown is not the same as one on the South or West side. Nor would a white man share the same experience as a Black woman. Even a simple journey through TikTok will show countless comedic reenactments of worker experiences―from hair stylists, to restaurant servers, to bartenders, and more. And while humor is often used as a lens, (for example, waking up in the middle of the night and realizing you forgot to bring a table their side of ranch), similar egregious behavior is recounted again and again: disrespect, entitlement, harassment, and objectification, to name a few.
Take, for example, your average restaurant server. The amount of money they will make often depends on the shift. For example, if it’s a weekend brunch or holiday dinner, chances are good they’ll earn good tips. Or when the Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016, working waiters and bartenders across Chicago celebrated not just out of city pride, but for the fatness of their wallets as the tips poured in like rain. However, on other days and in other parts of the city, servers sometimes barely make enough to cover their own income taxes.
Then there are the customers. Chicago is an international city, renowned for its food and restaurants, and in the hospitality industry, visitors from all over can make this work a cultural and exciting experience. And while many customers are respectful, there are still rude — sometimes abusive — people everywhere. And as we know, there is still a long way to go in the fight against issues like sexism and racism, which are deeply embedded in our culture. Restaurant environments are ripe for harassment, because any potentially bigoted individual wields the power to impact a server’s ability to support themselves. Each nasty comment and unwanted sexual advance forces servers into a balancing act between maintaining their dignity and being able to pay bills. A bad tip or no tip is more than just a bummer: it’s an increased chance of someone’s lights getting turned off, less availability of quality healthcare, another hour of child care costs outweighing wages, and more. Tipped workers―especially women, and particularly Black and Latina/x women―are much more vulnerable to harassment and wage insecurity under this system both because they are more likely to work in the industry due to occupational segregation, and because a history of systemic bias has created greater barriers to their success.
This is why for years, Women Employed (WE) has fought to end the “subminimum” wage for tipped workers and secure a full and fair wage with tips on top. Along with a dedicated group of advocates including One Fair Wage, Our Revolution, The Worker Center for Racial Justice, Shriver Center on Poverty Law, Fight for $15, Arise Chicago, SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana Missouri and Kansas, and many more, WE has worked tirelessly to eradicate this injustice within tipped industries. And this month, we celebrated a major victory in this fight.
On Friday, October 5, the Chicago City Council voted 36–10 to pass the One Fair Wage ordinance, ensuring that tipped workers will rightfully earn a full minimum wage with tips on top! The ordinance will phase out the subminimum wage for tipped workers over five years. WE are proud to be a part of the movement towards pay equity in Chicago! Congratulations to all the tipped workers who have been fighting to end this racist, sexist system for decades. And thank you to all the partners, coalition members, and workers who helped get us this far!
For more information and to learn more about this long overdue victory, visit Women Employed Applauds Passage of Chicago One Fair Wage Ordinance Ending Subminimum Wage for Tipped Workers — Women Employed.