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Not Having It All: What Does The Minimum Wage Mean For Moms?

Mothers working in the food service industry are struggling, as child care costs eat up the vast majority of their meager paychecks.

As much as it’s become the mantra for many working women of a certain class, for more than two million mothers in the restaurant industry, "having it all" is generally not an option. A new report from foodworker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United reveals that our food service industry keeps working mothers in an impossible balancing act, especially when restaurants can legally get away with paying food workers $2.13 an hour if they’re also earning $30 in tips a week.

After interviewing more than 200 working moms in Detroit, Chicago, New York, LA, and Washington, D.C., ROC United found that the women earned an average of $7.65 an hour, or $386.70 a week. Even though employers are required by federal law to make sure their employees make at least minimum wage in tips, ROC found that in many instances, those tips were shared with managers or illegally deducted. As a result, a third of the mothers earned minimum wage or less. And 70% of the women interviewed had young children under the age of 5.

"If you’re in the restaurant industry in a waitress role, then you depend on tips," an interviewee named Daniella told ROC. "If [you] don’t get any tips, you can’t pay the bills, because you only get paid $2.65 an hour, so your paycheck is worthless to you. I make, on average, $90 a week, $125 on a good week. But, that’s not even making daycare," she said.

Unlike Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, the women interviewed couldn’t afford to "lean in" by having a nursery installed in their workplaces: On average, foodworker moms spent 35% of their earnings on childcare and were often given warnings or demoted when they had kid-mergencies.

"The key issues are really affordability. To me it was shocking to find that many of these women are earning $86 a week in wages only earned $60 a week in tips," ROC United founder Saru Jayaraman said. "They’re only earning $150 in tips and wages, and most childcare is $113. In truth, with the variance in tips, we’ve seen many instances this data is showing that 50, 60, 70% of your wages go to childcare, which is almost worthless. You might as well stay home," she said.

The report’s authors argue that conditions for working moms in the food business don’t have to be so dire. Take, for example, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café. After leaving an abusive marriage, Vimala Rajendran, a single mom of three from India, started serving communal meals out of her home in North Carolina for donations. By 2010, the business grew to a point where she could formally open up a restaurant, and now she pays her staff $10 an hour, including tips.

She also has a policy in which servers who work Friday and Saturday evening shifts make as much as servers working Wednesday lunch shifts, so mothers who have to choose traditional weekday scheduling because of childcare aren’t shortchanged by working less busy hours. "You’ve got to pay workers enough so that if they work full-time, they can cover the needs of their families and have the option to have a stay-at-home parent," Rajendran’s daughter, Manu, said.

Practices like Rajendran’s—like giving mothers paid sick leave, paying a living wage, and providing child care subsidies—could help lift the restaurant industry’s working mothers out of a cycle of poverty wages. The other option would be to legislate change. The Fair Minimum Wage Act would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, and for tipped workers would raise minimum earnings to $7.07 from the current $2.13.

"Tipped workers in America are 70% female," Jayaraman said. "I think the key is allowing women to do what they need to do, and choose what they need to do, and sustain a living—and part of that is having a base wage that’s stable and secure."