By Jennifer Hughes

As a long-time food service worker, I know how difficult it can be to survive on tips. I remember working at a place where the minimum wage was $5.15/hr and no one could get full-time hours because the employer did not want to offer health benefits.

On top of being a full-time student, I had to constantly make quality of life decisions. I cut as many corners as I could: living with roommates, buying generic food and hygiene items, walking to class and carpooling to work. I was a long way from my home and my family, and my dog was all I had.

The last straw came when I had to make a decision between whether my dog or I would eat that night. It was hard decision but not one that I had not made before. I realized then that I could not keep my dog if I could not afford to feed us both. It was a heart-wrenching decision but I found a loving family to take him. I thought I had done everything right. He was like my child. It was at that moment that I wondered about the families of other tipped workers. What did they do? I decided there had to be an end to this system of poverty that keeps hard-working people like me in poverty.

I’ve worked alongside single moms and career waitresses who struggle with a tipped worker minimum wage that has not been raised in 18 years. That’s right: The last time tipped workers in Georgia got a minimum wage raise, I was in kindergarten.

Some restaurants and food establishments pay more than the minimum wage. I’m happy to say that I now work for one of them. My pay now is at least $1.50 over the current minimum wage and we are eligible for up to a 50 cent/hour raise every six months. We split tips as a collective and receive them weekly. After the first six months one qualifies for health benefits, as long as you maintain 20 hours a week. This makes it easy for me to juggle school and work without fear of losing my health insurance. One is also eligible for tuition reimbursement and other various perks from the company after six months. I was only at the last job for about eight months. I have been at this job for nearly two years. The wages and benefits contributed to my commitment to them. I have no reason to leave!

In honor our efforts to raise the tipped worker minimum wage of $2.13/hour, Atlanta 9to5 and the Georgia Minimum Wage Coalition are launching a “Show Your Server Some Heart” project on Feb. 13. Here’s how you can help:

 Support a statewide proposal to increase the tipped worker minimum wage in Georgia to 50 percent of the federal minimum wage (to $3.62/hr). Thirty two states have a tipped worker wages higher than the federal $2.13/hr, including 22 states with rates of 60 percent of the full minimum wage.

 Support the federal WAGES Act, which would increase the federal tipped worker credit, over several years to $5.50/hour.

 Tip well! The tip you leave for your server will very likely be shared with the bussers, food runners and maybe the bartender. Without generous tips, your server could go home at the end of an 8 hour shift with as little as $17 (before taxes).

Valentine’s Day is a big day for hearts, flowers and romantic dinners. For people who will be treating their sweetheart to a restaurant meal, it’s also an opportunity to show some heart to the people serving their food.
Hughes is a student at Georgia State University and a member of 9to5, Atlanta Working Women.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Georgia Forum. 2/10