The Problem With Your Valentine’s Day Tip

Valentine’s Day is the busiest and highest grossing day of the year for restaurants. But if you’re heading out to a romantic dinner, you may want to take time to think about the man who brings your drinks, the woman who serves your meal, and the teenager who clears your table. All of them will likely be working hard to make your evening a success. In turn, you will be expected to reward them with a generous tip. Seems innocuous enough, but Saru Jayaraman says that system has unintended consequences for everyone involved.

Jayaraman is a graduate of Yale Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. As co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, she has spent the past decade fighting for better wages and working conditions for low-wage restaurant workers. ROC United has won more than $10 million in stolen tips, wages and discrimination payments. It has also spurred significant policy changes at several high-profile restaurants.

In this podcast, Jayaraman shares the challenges facing tipped workers today. Given its notoriously low wages, she says the restaurant industry suffers from the worst sexual harassment rates of any industry in the US. “You’re feeding your family entirely on tips,” she says of the typical server, whose median age is in the mid-30s. “You have to tolerate whatever a customer might do to you,” she tells us, “because the customer is always right.”

She adds that the restaurant business is also rife with racism. “Much of the industry is so severely segregated, with white workers up front and literally the skin color getting darker the further back into the restaurant you go,” she explains. Jayaraman does, however, express hope about the future. “Crisis breeds opportunity,” she says. “And that’s what we’re seeing right now in our industry and in our nation.”

To those heading out for a Valentine’s meal? “Tip well,” Jayaraman says. But she then advises consumers to work with organizations like ROC United to change the system. “Because if all we do is tip well, we continue to subsidize a multibillion dollar industry that expects us to pay its workers’ wages.”

Additional Resources:

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United’s website

2-13 Day of Action

The New York Times Article: An Outspoken Force to Give Food Workers a Seat at the Table

Jayaraman’s books: Behind The Kitchen Door, The New Urban Immigrant Workforce and Forked: A New Standard for American Dining

Jayaraman on Twitter

Featured Image: Saru Jayaraman


  1. Courtney Umlauf

    I’ve always been a little confused by the issue of a server’s minimum wage fof $2.13 an hour and by how this is used as a way of pointing to how servers are poorly treated. I worked as a server for years while in college, and in my experience, saying that servers make just $2.13 an hour doesn’t present the entire picture. In my experience, if I were to come to work, stand around for an hour without getting any tables and then be sent home by my boss, I wouldn’t receive just $2.13 for that hour. The restaurant was responsible for making up the difference between the $2.13 base rate and the legal minimum wage. So on the flip side, if I came to work for an hour, served one table, made a $10 tip, and then was sent home, the restaurant was only responsible for paying me $2.13, since I made up the difference in tips. I was working in Indiana, I don’t imagine my state has some uniquely progressive tipping law that other states don’t have. Is this not how servers in other states are treated?

  2. Shawna Marie Thomas

    I don’t agree with a majority of this podcast. I am a carribean American female who has worked in the hospitality industry since the age of 17 (I’m now 34). I started out as a hostess and quickly advanced to server. I started bartending at 20 and was offered a management position by 26. I’ve worked in fine dining, casual dining, in a pub, a tiki bar, chain restaurants… and again, I have to disagree with a majority of this podcast. I think the mentality that back of house mostly people of color is what is holding most people back from aspiring to other positions. I think if we stopped spreading this mentality and encouraged people to just TRY to apply for a front of house job, and depending on their work ethic, they could easily move up in the work place. EASILY. As for sexual harassment, I think you get treated however you allow yourself to be treated. Most people in the industry know that the “customer is always right” theory is outdated. And I believe there is a way to let someone know that you find them disrespectful without losing their business. I’m not saying people haven’t tried to assault me on the past but I’ve always shut it down without cause for trouble. As for tipping, I think a majority of the time you earn what you recieve. The rest of the time it is the general public being ignorant or naive to how to properly treat service staff. Perhaps more people should be educated on how to behave themselves in public instead of feeling entitled to treat other humans as slaves or trash. Maybe that is the root of the service industry problem. I do however I agree that people in the service industry should possible have a higher minimum wage and/or benefits. I think everyone in the industry could benefit to that change.

    • Amy

      It’s heartening to hear of your mostly positive experience working in the service industry, Shawna. It sounds like you’ve figured out how to use your skills to feel safe and respected in the workplace. I wonder if there are training programs that offer your colleagues some of the skills that you already seem to possess? I’m also glad to hear that you’ve managed to seek out promotions and that you’ve succeeded in that regard. I imagine your example is an inspiration to others in the back of the restaurant. And, yes, it seems higher wages and benefits would provide restaurant workers with more security and safe guards.

      Thank you for taking the time to write, for listening, and for weighing in. Saru offered but one perspective on a vast and varied industry. Your perspective indeed adds nuance and reminds me that many workers likely have had positive experiences and careers, as you’ve articulated so well here.


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