Under federal law, there are two classes of workers: those who make tips and those who do not, with different rules for each. Since 2009, the federal minimum wage for regular workers has been $7.25 an hour. For tipped workers, it’s been far lower for far longer — $2.13, where it’s been stuck for more than two decades. In theory, employers are expected to make up the difference if tips don’t bring workers up to the regular minimum wage. In practice, particularly in the restaurant industry, servers’ dependence on their bosses to get good shifts means few complain if they don’t get the wage gap closed.
This two-tiered system is a peculiar anachronism. It was imported to the United States by wealthy U.S. travelers seeking to re-create the customs of the European aristocracy, and the practice proliferated after the end of the Civil War as a means for the restaurant and hospitality industry, led by the Pullman Co., to hire newly freed slaves without paying them base wages. The effect was to create a permanent servant class, for whom the responsibility of paying a living wage was shifted from employers onto customers. In many other countries, waitstaff were eventually brought to legal parity with other workers, understood to be professionals like anyone else. In “Homage to Catalonia,” George Orwell described his shock upon arriving in Barcelona and observing that “waiters and shopwalkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.”
This did not happen in the United States, where tips were enshrined into law, affecting nearly 6 million workers today, 65 percent of whom are women. Waitstaff and bartenders who earn sub-minimum wages are more than twice as likely to live below the poverty line as non-tipped workers. Yet the wage floor varies across the country, as states set their own regular and tipped minimum wages.