Kelly’s story is like many other stories of those working in the food industry: she considers herself a professional, but her full-time job as a server isn’t enough to make ends meet, so she works a second job, leaving home at eight in the morning and returning some fifteen hours later by midnight. Her server job at a local restaurant in Pennsylvania pays $2.83 per hour, which is just above the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13, and she relies on tips each day to support her two young sons, Carden and Luca, who she loves more than anything else in her life.
“I feel like I am doing what I love to do, but it is a struggle knowing that no matter how hard I work and no matter how good I am, if I am to keep my job, I am not going to be paid by my employer anywhere near a decent or acceptable wage.”
Kelly says that she is lucky because she has a supportive family and is able to split the financial burdens with her fiancé, Evan. Kelly and most of her peers just want to be seen as professionals. They believe that their jobs are important to a functioning, healthy, and happy society, and they work hard to make sure they are treated with respect.
“What I love most about the food industry is the people,” Kelly says. “When someone goes out to a restaurant, they want to have an experience. I like to make things special for them, serve them good food, fulfill them, you know. It’s great.”
Working in a restaurant can provide decent money, Kelly says, but the tipping system required to do so promotes an unsafe environment enabling sexual harassment and racial discrimination. These issues most often pass silently – no repercussions are experienced by those committing egregious acts – but do not pass unfelt by those serving food who must forever push forward and ignore because doing otherwise could comprise a decent tip, a job, or making rent.
“Sometimes a guest will make inappropriate comments or physically touch you. Then you are put in a rough situation because your job is to make them happy but you also want to hold your dignity and self respect,” Kelly says.
In one case, a customer asked her, “Are you Vietnamese?” and then went on to tell her: “I went to Vietnam and I killed those SOBs, those POS (piece-of-shits).” And in a different case, a customer told her, because of her ethnicity – Filipino – that he was going to take her out back and give her fifty lashes.
“It becomes difficult because the bottom line is that their tip is your income,” Kelly says.
But despite these trials of character, she is hopeful about the food industry because she wants to continue working a job that she sees as important and fulfilling. She believes that one day a living wage will come to those who work to serve families every day and that they will be treated and paid as professionals. “I am optimistic for the future, I think that I need to be. I think it has gotten so bad that people are finally coming around and saying, ‘We need to do something. We need to raise our people up, raise all these working families up.’”
This piece was filmed in 2016.