The Other NRA


The current federal hourly rate for tipped employees stands at $2.13. You are reading that correctly and yes, it is September 2013. That amount reads $2.13, U.S. dollars. In fact, it has been at that amount since 1991. You can pick your jaw up off the ground now. In all fairness, while that federal amount has remained frozen, the ultimate minimum wage burden has been pushed down to a state level. And the states vary in how they handle tipped and non-tipped minimum wage employees. If you are scratching your head, wondering how the Federal baseline can be so low, you can thank the NRA.Nope, not the National Rifle Association, the OTHER NRA, the National Restaurant Association.

Thanks to 2012 Republican Presidential candidate, and former National Restaurant Association head, Herman Cain, it’s quite conceivable that it will stay at $2.13. You see, way back in 1996 during minimum wage increase negotiations in Congress, then NRA honcho Cain said, “We (the NRA) won’t oppose the overall minimum wage continuing to go up as long as the minimum wage for tipped workers stays frozen (wait for it)…forever.”

Can’t you just hear the diabolical chortling?

One can’t ignore that the National Restaurant Association is the tenth largest lobbying firm in the country and they tend to lobby on the conservative side. Why the head of a lobbying firm (Cain), and not an elected official, was able to wield this sort of influence should alarm you. It probably doesn’t, but it should. We all know the influence that lobbyists have on Washington D.C. lawmakers and the prevailing cynicism about American politics tells us this sort of manipulation is nothing new.

There is something inherently Dickensonian about strong-arming Congress in 1996 to keep the federal tipped minimum wage frozen…forever. Seriously, every time I read that I hear evil echoing laughter in my head. It’s like thinking that the pre-dream sequence Ebenezer Scrooge was an amazing capitalist and not just a raging asshole.

As anyone reading this probably knows, Herman Cain, and the other NRA, were successful in their lobbying endeavor…and throwing a huge chunk of the American public into poverty in the process.

The restaurant industry has so many elephants in the room that it would be a Sisyphean task to address them all in one article. But a good one to start with is the hourly wage.

Servers rely on tips to live. It’s worth noting that when tipping was first introduced in this country, it was met with “impassioned and organized opposition”. In an NYTimes article by Paul Wachter from 2008, he states that “tipping is almost antithetical to the democratic ideal because it truly began as an aristocratic practice, a sprinkle of change for social inferiors”.

However, when the aristocrats aren’t around to sprinkle the change; it’s that hourly wage that the wait staff rely on. It helps offset those days. Well, it should anyway. I once worked at a restaurant where I had to rely solely on a shift wage because there was literally no, and I mean NO, bar service. The only food I got were the two shift meals. I barely made enough in shift pay for gas to get to work. Rent was always late. It was horrible.

According to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the United States are restaurant jobs. With 10 million restaurant workers in the U.S., is it any wonder that the poverty rate among restaurant employees is three times that of the non-restaurant workforce? Did you know that food servers use food stamps at double the rate of the U.S. workforce?

By virtually every statistic imaginable, it would appear as though the aristocrat’s are not holding up their end of the bargain.

There is a small, but growing, movement among independently owned American full service restaurants to do away with tipping entirely. In some cases, it would mean the elimination of the tip entirely and the service cost being rolled into the menu. In others, it would be simply presented on the bill to the customer, and the customer is then responsible for the total amount.

What a dream it would be to go out to dinner and simply pay the bill; to not have to break out the calculator or an abacus to do some sort of math calculation that must somehow factor in an approval rating while fitting in with social mores.

While unlikely, eliminating a tipped environment entirely would certainly allow for a more consistent and livable wage among tipped employees. The amount servers make per shift vacillates and, as we all know, bills like rent and food don’t. Unfortunately, the majority of tipped employees work for large restaurant corporations and these corporations are closely tied to, and big supporters of, the NRA. This affiliation and steadfast commitment to keeping the status quo, at $2.13, all but insures that the poverty rate for servers will remain at three times the rest of the United States.

As corporation coffers continue to swell as the majority of us sit, unemployed, underemployed or double employed, through this glacially paced recovery, the employment within the restaurant industry continues to grow. According to, after hitting a 17-year high in 2012, 2013 “will represent the 14th consecutive year in which the restaurant job growth outpaces the overall economy.” Read alone, an amazing statistic. Paired with the fact that food servers generally exist below the poverty line, not so amazing.

It seems to me we can kill two birds with one stone by simply raising the minimum wage among tipped employees.

One bird we could kill would be the bloviating about welfare abuse. It would seem to me that if tipped employees live below the poverty rate at three-times the non-restaurant workforce and food servers use food stamps at double the rate of U.S. workforce, raising the rate on a Federal level from $2.13 would help alleviate that and the bitching.

The other, more esoteric bird, is that this adjustment would have a profound impact on such a large amount of the population that it would go a long way towards moving us back towards the democracy we were set up to be. An added bonus is that it would move a large number of people from poverty into the middle class.

If the restaurant industry continues to grow as projected, simple math tells us that with addressing this issue in some capacity, more and more people will sink into poverty and ultimately rely on government services.

There is plenty of blame to go around on how far we have slipped as a culture and a democracy. And certainly there is plenty of blame within the restaurant industry as to why it grows and yet its employee’s standard of living does not. One could start by blaming the tenth largest lobbying firm in Washington D.C., the National Restaurant Association, for wielding such power as to keep the Federal minimum wage for tipped employees frozen at $2.13, forever. That just defines new degrees of absurdity. And if a total re-alignment of the industry and the eradication of the tipping standard is not possible (and they’re not) than it’s up to the corporations to step up and take responsibility for their staff.

Yea, I guess we all know how that ends up.

Keith R. Higgons is the publisher and editor of wait(er) Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @krhiggons and on the web at

Additional Sources:

Department of Labor Chart

ROC United


Photo reprinted without permission under Creative Commons License.

UPDATE: Not affiliated with The Other NRA by Steven Rosenfeld published 8.27 on AlterNet. Linked here to