Meals service employees want and deserve higher compensation

Maria Reppas, guest columnist

Published 6:03 am CT June 2, 2021


President Biden is pushing for the minimum wage to be raised to $ 15. So that would affect the economy.


I was a teenager doing adult jobs in an environment that encouraged unsafe working conditions, exploitation, sexual harassment and emotional abuse – all for minimum wages and no benefits.

I joined the workforce in 1994 when I got a job at a restaurant in Cedar Falls. I thought I was wealthy when I found out I was earning a minimum wage: $ 4.65 an hour, or about $ 8.35 an hour in 2021.

The work couldn’t be that hard if it pays a minimum wage, right?

Even though I was only 16 years old, the job was physically demanding. I kept going through trays of dirty dishes. I lifted several racks with glasses and heavy boxes at the same time without any instructions. Removing the trash and changing the soda syrup canisters required two people physically. To this day I have scars on my forearms from kitchen accidents, even though minors were not allowed to operate the stoves and ovens. Whenever I was in the public part of the restaurant, the management required me to keep a smile on my face, which made me look disturbed.

Managers are on the customer’s side every time because “no matter what they say, customers are the reason you have a paycheck”. (The only exception was when a man threatened to shoot everyone for his cake options.) Customers got tantrums over minor issues like waiting for a pot of coffee or the price of a side dish that went up 5 cents. Male guests frequently molested me sexually, asked for my phone number, and unsolicited criticism of my body. A man recognized me outside of work, but I avoided him because he scared me. He complained to my supervisor, who threatened me with a charge for “poor customer service”.

The worst part of this job was the poor monetary incentives for workers to avoid filing claims for damages. Each month, management drew names for the “safety” pyramid. If at the end of the month no one had an accident that required outside medical care, we were paid an extra few dollars. When my colleague cut his arm open, there was a mob, including me, to stop him from going to the emergency room.

I was a teenager doing adult jobs in an environment that encouraged unsafe working conditions, exploitation, sexual harassment and emotional abuse – all for minimum wages and no benefits. I can’t imagine doing the same adult job in 2021 and relying on that paycheck as the main source of income.

When I hear about the “labor shortage” in the catering industry, I look at the pay. The federal minimum wage remains at $ 7.25 an hour, and for servers with tipped it is $ 2.13 an hour. Despite the increased cost of living, these rates have not changed since 2009 and 1991, respectively. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for servers is $ 11.42 / hour. While this rate is slightly better, it’s still probably not enough to cover the country’s average one-bedroom rent of nearly $ 1,100, groceries, utilities, contingencies, health care, and other necessary monthly living expenses.

Instead of a mythical labor shortage, there is a livable wage shortage in the USA. A livable wage rate enables American workers to survive and thrive, rather than treading water, by living from paycheck to paycheck. Employers do not pay a viable wage, so unemployment allowance, which is a partial replacement for job loss, is more appropriate to cover the cost of living. This fact is not a charge against social safety nets, but against employers who want to get next to nothing. Literally.

The wages of restaurant workers must rise in direct proportion to the safety risks that waiters face in addition to the brutal responsibility they face. Other unskilled workers, such as roofers and construction workers, are paid higher on average because of the dangerous conditions.

This country has to go back to work, but turning the dollar bill into a club to punish the working poor and tarnish the dignity of work is not the route to the American exceptionalism we like to brag about. This country can do more than the bare minimum.

Maria Reppas (Photo: special to the register)

Maria Reppas lives in Virginia with her husband and son. It can be reached at

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