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How a $200 Tip Exposes an Unfair System

Above, you have a classic feel-good Internet video, the kind that fills up email inboxes and Facebook newsfeeds the world over: Two random guys visit random restaurants and tip their servers $200 each. They capture the resulting jubilation and stunned disbelief on video.

The video goes viral and hearts are warmed everywhere.

Nonetheless, this warm-fuzzy montage indirectly exposes the cold reality of restaurant-server compensation: utter dependency on the kindness of strangers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, tips often represent 50 percent to 90 percent of a waiter’s income, making them extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in their customers’ generosity.

In the U.S. there are two separate minimum wages: tipped and non-tipped. Most restaurant workers are paid according to the federal tipped minimum wage, which is $2.13 per hour.

If that figure sounds low to you, that’s because it is. And it has been low for a while. The federal tipped minimum wage has remained stagnant since 1991—back when the USSR was in its last throes and C&C Music Factory was churning out Billboard hits.

Federal law requires restaurant workers to be paid at least $7.25 once tips are divvied up. If wages fall short of that, restaurant owners must make up the difference. Leaving aside whether $7.25 is sufficient to live on, you still have a situation in which hardworking servers must rely on the whims (and basic math skills) of their customers.

Videos like the one above are powerful because we know, often from personal experience, what it means to work for tips. According to the National Restaurant Association, half of all American adults have worked in the restaurant industry at some point during their lives, and a third got their first job in a restaurant.

So let’s applaud these filmmakers for their generosity. But why stop there? Let’s show our respect for hardworking Americans by making sure their hard work means something.

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