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Low Wages, Sexual Harassment and Unreliable Tips. This Is Life in America’s Booming Service Industry

This TIME Labor Day edition cover story focused on the lives of waitresses at one diner in Philadelphia to highlight the broader inequities — exacerbated by gender — that exist across the service economy, particularly within the tipped workforce. About 11.4 million Americans now work in jobs in restaurants and bars, a 52% increase from two decades ago. Two-thirds of them are women, and 40% are people of color. Christina Munce, the main waitress featured, is a single mother on food stamps and Medicaid who was making the Pennsylvania minimum wage for tipped workers, which is just $2.83 per hour. She made most of her money on tips, which means that her daily income depends on how many people dine on that day or how generous some strangers are feeling. Sexual harassment is rampant and paid sick days are nonexistent in Munce’s world. 

Drilling down on policy and labor data, Fuller Project reporter Malcolm Burnley and TIME reporter Alana Semuels showed why women continue to be paid so low in restaurants, and how that’s concerning for the future of the country. Service work, without guaranteed hours or income, is expected to grow in America over the next decade.   

Burnley’s reporting ensured that working women’s voices were central in the national policy discussion about the economy. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, then-US Senator Claire McCaskill echoed our reporting; Senator Cory Booker followed with an OpEd in TIME Magazine, and our article was shared by PA Governor Tom Wolfe and reacted to by then-Presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Several of the waitresses at the featured diner received hundreds of dollars in unsolicited donations from readers. Waitress Christina Munce received donations of over $3,000 from sympathetic readers, and was offered and accepted a full-time job with benefits. 

A secondary focus of the article was the patchwork of state laws covering tipped workers, which are rarely updated and disproportionately affect women and people of color. Since 1991, the federal minimum wage has doubled for most workers across the country. Meanwhile, tipped workers’ minimum wages have remained frozen at the same levels. In 2019 alone, 16 states as diverse as Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Indiana introduced legislation to raise the tipped minimum wage to the level of all other workers, responding to waitresses who’ve marched on state capitols and on Congress. 

In the article, Burnley and Semuels quoted Jacob Vigdor, an economist at the University of Washington, who said that in the next recession, “the primary hit is going to generally be in sectors that don’t involve providing basic services to other people.” That has proven to be true with the service sector, and women have been disproportionately represented on unemployment rolls during the COVID-19 crisis. 

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