(Opinion) Server Wages Are Unsustainable for Georgian College Students

Coffee at the Waffle House by Sam Howzit is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sam Howzit

“Coffee at the Waffle House” by Sam Howzit is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Cooper Ownbey

Server Wages Are Unsustainable for Georgian College Students

Waffle House, to readers unfamiliar, has been a breakfast restaurant held near and dear to Georgians’ hearts since Labor Day of 1955. While most patrons view the chain as their favorite family diner, and others gauge the severity of weather emergencies by its operational status- something referred to as the Waffle House Index by FEMA– I know the beloved American staple as my employer of two years.

Before applying at Waffle House, I didn’t know much about tipped wages, or “server wage”, in legislation. I was under the impression that at 16 years old, having to buy my groceries and hygiene items with little to no financial support, I’d be able to just snag a job to stay afloat. The consensus that the pre-millennial generations had come to on wages was that young people are inherently lazy, and “no one wants to work anymore,” so I did what they said I was supposed to do: My job.

I did my job so well that after an annual performance review, corporate decided to give me a raise. I opened the envelope that my manager had given me, eager with anticipation to see how much easier it would be to make ends meet, and my starry eyes met with printed numerals reading, “$3.22.”

Allow me to clear up any confusion: My hourly rate of pay was not being raised by three dollars, but rather increased to equal $3.22. The increase in question- after eight consistent months of hard labor and tens of thousands of dollars in revenue earned as the only server on my shifts- was three cents.

My pay was raised from $3.19 to $3.22 after close to a year of reliability. My employer told me that they would begin to pay me three dollars and twenty-two cents per hour of labor, and the expected response from me was gratitude.

I perceived this as a slap in the face, metaphorically speaking.

My intention with this is not at all to complain that I was going to be making more money- I could argue the contrary as my thesis. However, when put into the perspective that even after this raise, they were only paying me $22.54 to work the full duration of a 7-hour shift (before deductions, as the only server in the restaurant), it’s easy to see how I took this as a signal to how little they valued me.

Some of you may be wondering how the company was getting away with paying me less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr, which hasn’t been updated for inflation for the cost of living since July 2009.

While the federal government may put their foot down- or gently brush the soles of their shoes up against, for the sake of this metaphor’s accuracy- over the $7.25/hr minimum wage, there is a deliberate exception for tipped positions.

The United States has had the federal minimum tipped wage set at $2.13/hr since 1991. At the time of its implementation, that was equal to half of the regular minimum wage, but it currently sits at an all-time low of 29.4%.

Some states have imposed higher wages for these positions in tandem with the typical rate, but in the case of Georgia, which is home to 434 Waffle House locations as of April 2022, our legislators have hung their food service workers out to dry.

Tipped wages function by having a company give an employee a base rate- often not surpassing $2.13/hr in Georgia- and that employee is expected to make up the difference between that and minimum wage with their tips.

For servers who work at high-traffic locations during hours with consistent business and reliable tippers, this often works out in their favor, and they end their shifts with enough cash to get by in their pockets and time left in the day for life outside of work.

Many of us, however, draw short straws.

Due to my school schedule, I work the notoriously slow shift from 2-9 pm. On bad days, I barely surpass $100 in sales, which makes earning $36 per shift in tips to get my earnings up to par with minimum wage difficult.

What’s even worse than suffering through low-traffic shifts, though, is enduring a very busy day with very picky parties who aren’t profitable. Parents take their disinterested teens and messy toddlers out to dinner, argue with you over corporate-dictated prices that you have no control over whilst settling their $50 tab, and leave only four quarters for you on the table- a table that they’ve managed to spill so much of their hash brown dinner bowls under that it more closely resembles a gerbil cage than a tile floor.

Despite it all, I get it- it’s rough for everyone right now. On a personal level, I have gotten (and will continue to get) upset, but I don’t think that bad tippers are to blame for systematically low rates of pay among servers. Part of the reason that things are so universally difficult (ie. money is too tight to afford to tip your server) is unfair wages.

Why does the expectation fall on the consumer to directly compensate someone else’s employee in addition to the cost of the services provided to them? How are multi-billion dollar corporations getting away with paying their employees relative breadcrumbs in exchange for facilitating all of their real-world services and transactions?

Having the ability to pay our phone bills left dependent on the generosity of our employer’s patrons is not an aspect of sustainable living. The perpetually increasing menu prices aren’t doing us any favors, either, as customers aren’t as eager as they used to be to toss a $5 bill to their waiter after facing sticker shock.

Many may wonder what that money is being dedicated to, certainly not the ground-level workers, as servers are still being paid as little as ever despite the cost of living skyrocketing, and all grill operators suffering a flat $1 pay cut in 2020 no matter their status in the company.

Some would chalk this up to inflation under the Biden administration, but if the changes were due to nationally inflating costs to keep things afloat, wouldn’t the most logical inference be that employees are also experiencing all-time-high costs of living and that they’re equally entitled to a proportional raise to get by in this economy?

As a freshman student at Armstrong, I’m riding on a housing scholarship to live on campus, which I am very lucky to have. However, if I were to have to find someplace else to stay, paying the median rent of $1,156 for a 2-bedroom apartment in Savannah seems unfathomable on an income made up of virtually tips alone– managing to come up with even half of that in a roommate scenario would be a stretch on server wage.

Sarah, a pre-law student based in Georgia Southern’s Statesboro campus, provided some insight regarding her experiences at the same corporation. She recalled working the second shift routinely for 11 months between 2020 and 2021 for an hourly rate of $2.35 and expressed to me how she thinks that the menu prices have climbed to an extreme.

INKWELL STAFF: “Would you say that you were paid fairly by the company?”

SARAH: “No.”

INKWELL STAFF: “How did your rate of pay impact your life as a student?”

SARAH: “As a student making $2.35 an hour, I was living, quite literally, paycheck to paycheck. I could not afford simple things, such as shampoo, toothpaste, or cat litter. It affected what I could do in my free time, where I could go- because I couldn’t afford anything.”

INKWELL STAFF: “With the price increases, did you ever receive raises or bonuses corresponding to the company’s profit, or maybe your sales?”

SARAH: “I never received a raise, I never received a bonus. The only time I received any sort of extra pay was when I worked required holidays, on which I would be making time and a half.”

The “time and a half” in question may have initially seemed to be pushing fair, but after realizing that it only brought her total hourly wage up to $3.53/hr in exchange for seven hours out of Christmas Day- an extra $8.26 pre-tax to spend a majority of the occasion’s daylight hours away from her family-, disenchantment to the phrase set in.

Another former server who wanted to speak their truth was Josh Bilkis, a Savannah College of Art & Design student who was employed by Rocks on the River inside of The Bohemian hotel for a little over three months. Though he is not affiliated with GSU, his costs of living are comparable to that of Armstrong students.

As we discussed his time spent as a waiter, he described how stressful and unfairly compensated he thought the $4/hr position was and remained firm on his stance that the job was awful for him.

INKWELL STAFF: “How would you summarize your experience at Rocks on the River?”

JOSH: “It was a venture that was not worth my time, energy, or peace of mind. Working that job flipped my life upside down, scattered all of my priorities, made me lose track of myself and my school obligations and stressed out my social life. It stole my time and my energy.”

INKWELL STAFF: “Were there any noticeable increases in menu prices while you worked at Rocks on the River?”

JOSH: “Yes. They did a refurbishment of their menu and raised almost all of their breakfast items by at least $2, and they also shrank the portion sizes. For example, the price of a small glass of orange juice, which shrank in size, cost $6 and did not include any refills.”

INKWELL STAFF: “With the price increases, did you ever receive raises or bonuses corresponding to the company’s profit, or maybe your sales?”

JOSH: “HA! No. The company couldn’t care less about me as a server.”

INKWELL STAFF: “Did your job impact your performance in school?”

JOSH: “Yes.”


JOSH: “I worked weekends. I worked Friday through Monday and had all morning shifts. I would wake up at 4:30 in the morning and bike to work at 5:30 and would get off around 3:30 pm. This left me with absolutely no energy to do anything productive for the rest of the day- I would crash. I was taking two high-intensity studio courses and found myself not having enough time to produce all of the work that I wanted to, to my satisfaction.”

INKWELL STAFF: “What changes do you think need to be made within the company for serving to be sustainable, given the current cost of living?”

JOSH: “Servers need to be paid for their labor in a sufficient amount. One that suits today’s economy, and a wage that shows that the company values their employee. with the small wages that we get currently, all employees are disposable and replaceable. They say that we’re part of a ‘family’ but there is no family. There has been no change, and no attempt to change, for the people. It has always been about the profit for the corporations. How much can they steal from us without us getting angry?”

Tipped wages are inherently unpredictable, and the severity of under-compensation relative to how much manual and emotional labor is demanded of servers is nothing short of disgustingly bleak. Legislative updates on the behalf of tipped employees are long overdue, especially in a high-cost, low worker’s rights area like Eastern Georgia.

The fight for fair pay will not cease until minimum wage positions reliably provide human beings with the means to survive again, just as initially intended.