Philly NOW, blog on Philly Weekly – Randy L0Basso – 06/25/2012

Earning minimum wage can be a bit ugly. Both the Pennsylvania and federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 per hour—which equates to $15,080 per year, assuming said minimum-wage worker takes no days off.The current minimum wage hasn’t kept up with inflation and partially accounts for why a record number of Americans are on food stamps today.

And as bad as that sounds, it can be worse for those in the restaurant industry: Tipped workers, which include most front-of-house restaurant employees, earn a minimum wage of $2.83 per hour in Pennsylvania, compared with the federal minimum of $2.13. And while tips are supposed to bring the employee up to that $7.25 standard, sometimes, they don’t.

Which is why Fabricio Rodriguez, lead coordinator for the Restaurant Opportunity Center of Philadelphia (ROC), joined yesterday’s Center City protest, organized by local community organizing group Fight For Philly and the ROC, to push for a higher minimum wage for low-income workers. The protest was meant to bring awareness to low-income labor and has coincided with a new report from the National Employment Law Project, which shows that today’s minimum wage is 30 percent lower, in terms of purchasing power, than it was in 1968, among other things.

“It’s basically common practice in the industry that your only wages are what you earn in tips, so if it doesn’t come up as $7.25 per hour and you walk with $20 in your pocket after a six-hour shift, that’s just what you leave with,” says Rodriguez a group founded to build power and a voice for restaurant workers. “We need to raise awareness that people in the restaurant industry aren’t always making $7.25 per hour. But also, $7.25 isn’t enough. We need to raise that up.”

Joining Rodriguez was restaurant industry worker Matthew Hillyer, who just recently joined the ROC. Hillyer has worked across the industry, he says, from bartending to running food, to busing tables—for the last 12 years. And in that time, he says, he’s seen changes that need to be made.

“Everything fluctuates from week to week,” Hillyer told PW at the protest. “For example,  if everyone goes to the shore, you’re not making any money; but if everyone comes into town for Thanksgiving or Christmas, then you happen to make a lot of money. But that’s a short amount of time. Like, your big push is a month out of a year and that’s not a way to make a living.”

Hillyer worked in several cities over his career before coming to Philadelphia, including San Antonio and New York. He says there’ve been times, especially in New York, where his career seemed like it was going pretty well. Meanwhile, there’ve been times in Philly where he’s worked 50-hour weeks and had to live on the streets, he said.

“The friends I have in the rest industry—and this is almost without exception—live day to day,” Hillyer adds. “And living day to day, it changes the way you look at the world. [You’re not able to save] for hard times.”

Hillyer and Rodriguez joined the march up Market Street, which began around 4:30 p.m. and would eventually make its way through the Gallery, where protesters chanted and held signs demanding a higher minimum wage. Many encouraged workers throughout the Center City mall to “join us.”

There are bills being floated in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and in the Pennsylvania Legislature currently, which would raise the minimum wage, both in Pennsylvania and nationally. And it’s really just now that they’re beginning to get a load of attention. And while many believe the standard for all workers should be up to about $10 (though the demand changes based upon who you talk to), some restaurant workers would be happy with about half that. As it currently stands, restaurant workers are six times more likely to qualify for food stamps than the average worker. Which is a bit ironic.

“We want front of house to $5.50,” says Rodriguez. “We’re not talking about getting people to the real minimum wage; we’re trying to make the restaurant industry more sustainable so people are not in such a terrible situation.”