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I worked in Connecticut’s restaurant industry for seven years as a server and bartender. Tipped work isn’t glamorous or lucrative — some tipped workers at high-end restaurants do well, but they are the exception, not the norm. 

Most of us struggle to make ends meet.  Our take home pay is unstable and unpredictable. The amount you make in tips can vary significantly, depending on the days and shifts you’re scheduled to work and the time of year. For example, a mid-week lunch shift or a Monday evening shift will not yield equivalent earnings for the equivalent amount of time of a weekend dinner shift. What’s worse is a slow shift can mean the hours you work that shift are cut and/or you might get a call an hour before a shift telling you not to come in.

Indeed, scheduling is a persistent issue in the restaurant industry. I have worked “on-call” shifts, been pressured to work last-minute even when I wasn’t on call, and showed up to work only to be sent home again. The unpredictable work schedule was stressful. It was difficult to make plans or appointments and I couldn’t predict my pay month to month. The worst part was feeling replaceable – that is, I felt I couldn’t stand up for myself because they could just fire me and hire someone else.

I was lucky, however, to work in restaurants that did not have a “late night” scene. So, while there were times I had a “closing” shift prior to an “opening” shift, I still got a decent night’s sleep. I have a family member who recently left a job at a restaurant that was open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and whose bar had a late-night scene. She was regularly scheduled to work closing shifts, getting home around 3 a.m., only to have to return to open at 9 a.m. I saw the toll this took on her physical and mental health. It was infuriating to me that employers were allowed to do that.

In these jobs, I had the advantage of not having dependents. For me, a slow shift or getting cut from a shift early may have meant I had to cut expenses — for example, by keeping my apartment colder in the winter or forgoing an evening out with friends. However, many of my coworkers were parents and caregivers and an unpredicted slow or cancelled shift often meant struggling to meet basic needs. Balancing unstable work schedules and unpredictable income can be hazardous to health. I felt the stress, and I saw the additional strain on my coworkers who were also parents or caregivers.

Currently, Connecticut’s minimum wage is $14 an hour, but servers earn the subminimum wage of $6.38. These workers must rely on tips to make up the $7.62 difference.  The combination of unstable schedules and unpredictable wages imposes a huge burden in the approximately 70,000 tipped workers in Connecticut, 70% of whom are women and 38% of whom are workers of color. Eliminating the subminimum wage will help eradicate systemic racism and gender inequity.

Research indicates that the subminimum wage for tipped workers results in worse economic outcomes for tipped workers and perpetuates racial and gender inequities. Forcing tipped workers to rely on tips for their wages creates tremendous instability in income flows, making it more difficult to budget or absorb financial shocks. Research has also shown that the practice of tipping is often discriminatory, with white service workers receiving larger tips than Black service workers for the same quality of service. Although Black workers represent the majority of the tipped service industry, they are also the ones making the least.

Adding to this stress, tipped workers also experience particularly high rates of sexual harassment, something that, as a young woman, I experienced firsthand. Much of it comes from power imbalances intensified by the practice of tipping and workers’ financial reliance on those tips. Eliminating the subminimum wage would help ensure all working people are paid a fair wage, and reduce sexual harassment currently endured by tipped workers.

Finally, it is worth explaining that portions of a shift are dedicated to preparation and clean-up (e.g., cleaning bathrooms, sweeping floors, organizing tableware, prepping stations, etc.), especially the typically rotating assignment of an “opening” or “closing” server. These tasks do not generate tips and, legally, they must be compensated full minimum wage. Connecticut Department of Labor regulations require employers to keep accurate records to ensure workers are paid properly, but they are seldom enforced, leading to widespread wage theft. Eliminating the subminimum wage will, again, protect workers.

Right now, the General Assembly is debating two bills that would eliminate the separate tipped-worker subminimum wage and establish predictable scheduling rules. These bills will help ensure Connecticut have jobs that they can rely on, pay a good wage, and treat them with respect.

Chelsea Connery is a doctoral candidate in Leadership and Education Policy at the University of Connecticut.