You don’t know me, but I choose to be a server because serving works for me. I love what I do and how much income and flexibility it provides my family.
You don’t know that I started working in restaurants at age 15, and 26 years later, I’m still happily employed as a server — by choice. You don’t know that, at 18, I was a single mom and serving provided me the income and flexibility to continue school, work, and raise my daughter. Serving also provided me the income to reach my personal goal of getting off state assistance by the time my daughter turned 6.
You don’t know that restaurant staff, owners and customers create a family atmosphere. That when my 9-year-old makes the baseball play-offs, and he has a last minute game, I get my shift switched so I won’t miss his game nor the money. You don’t know that I am able to keep my 4-year-old home to avoid high-cost day cares nor that I contribute significantly to my family because of the schedule serving provides.
You don’t know these things about me because no one asked. No one asked why I work as a server or what it means to my family. No one asked about the real conditions I work in or how the owner treats me. No one asked, but there are certainly plenty of people telling me what the restaurant industry is like.
They are telling me that 80 percent of women and 55 percent of men experience sexual harassment from customers, and that owners are abusive criminals paying slave wages. They are telling me I do a “subminimum job,” and therefore, I make a “subminimum wage,” and that I need saving because I am “stuck” being a server..
I am not stuck. I do not need saving. I am not sexually harassed; my boss would never allow that. Restaurant owners are not greedy monsters putting us in unsafe work environments. I make an excellent living at a job I love. I do not make a “subminimum wage.” “Subminimum wage” is for disabled workers who are not able to perform the full duty of a job. By law, as a tipped worker, I am guaranteed to make at least minimum wage. I choose this job because I make much more than that.
Under the new minimum wage law passed last November, not only will the hourly minimum wage rise to $12 by 2020, but the tip credit will be eliminated by 2024. If the tip credit is not reinstated, minimum wage is all servers will make, and $12 per hour won’t work for me and my family. I will not continue working as a server. This will affect the whole industry; people will leave their jobs, and jobs will be cut out of necessity.
You don’t know that I’ve also held other full-time professional day jobs. I worked as an account executive for a local radio station, where I received a small base pay plus commission depending on my job performance, very similar to the serving industry, but strangely not under attack. Additionally, I hold a health insurance license, and I have worked for a local company selling insurance for 100 percent commission. If I didn’t sell anything, I did not get paid. I was not guaranteed minimum wage, like a server, and that is a risk that people willingly take. Although these were considered “real jobs,” I have always returned to the restaurant industry. Not only do I love what I do, but it is where I can make the most money.
You don’t know that I worry about my future as a career server. Or that I am trying to understand why my industry is being forced to change, and why we are being told, by out of state interests, what our work environment is like. What interest, for example, does a man in California, who owns an automation company, have in donating $50,000 to the campaign to raise the minimum wage and eliminate Maine’s tip credit?
I consider what I do as a server as commission-based work. The more I sell, the more I make. My base wage is lower, but I am always guaranteed at least minimum wage. Why must I defend my job as a server, but I was never made to defend my job in a sales position making just commission?
You don’t know me, but I’m asking you to trust me. And I am asking you to fight for me and 5,000 of my fellow industry colleagues to restore the tip credit — immediately — before it’s too late.
Carrie Smith is a restaurant server. She lives in Bangor.