You don’t get to be an actor by being shy, so it should not have surprised me that Olivia Russell would do something attention-getting while she was serving me and a guest earlier this week at the Carolina Kitchen, a small chain restaurant in Washington’s Brentwood neighborhood.
She handed me a slip of paper that made me angry – not at her, but at the economic forces that she felt gave her no choice but do something this dramatic.
“I am a rising senior at Howard University where I am studying Musical Theater,” the note read. “My DREAM in life is to be an actor, following in the footsteps of my Uncle” (who I found out later is Montae Russell, who played the character Dwight Zadro in the 1990s TV hit “ER,” appeared in the movies “Godzilla” and “The Players Club,” and several August Wilson plays on Broadway).
Her note goes on to say that she has an opportunity to study for two years at the William Esper Studio in New York, the school that produced actors Kathy Bates and Larry David. But she’s going to have to pay the full $9,000 tuition.
“While I am grateful to have a waitressing job, we are only paid $2/hour and are forced to have to make up the rest of what we need in TIPS,” her note said. “So essentially we rely 98% on our customers for financial support in exchange for our hard work at making this a great restaurant. My target goal is to raise at least $500 a week, which I can’t do without help from good people like you.”
Think about what’s wrong with this picture.
The District of Columbia’s tipped minimum wage is $2.77 an hour, only marginally better that the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour.
It is true that all restaurants are required by law to make up the difference between the tipped minimum wage and the city’s full minimum wage, currently $9.50 an hour. But that means that Russell’s take-home pay is largely dependent on how many generous customers walk through the door. And Carolina Kitchen’s modestly priced menu is not designed to attract customers who can afford a lot of generosity.
So Russell – who only gets to work an average of 18 hours a week on shifts that vary from week to week – is way behind on her goal, which she has to reach by December; so far, she’s only banked about $200. “I am in search of another job to help support me better, in addition to my current employment,” she wrote.
It’s not that Russell’s story is unusual. All over the country, there are college students working at restaurants whose tips are going toward paying a tuition bill. As restaurant customers, we accept that as the way things are (even though there was no such thing as a tipped minimum wage before 1966). We even applaud these students for their hustle – if we know their stories.
But we usually don’t know their stories, not do we know the more common stories of mothers (and sometimes fathers) struggling to raise one or two children in a city where the rents are unaffordable, good child care is out of reach and weekly groceries would be too if it weren’t for an assist from the federal “food stamp” nutrition assistance program. According to a 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute, tipped workers are more than twice as likely to fall under the federal poverty line, and nearly three times as likely to rely on food stamps, as the average worker. (They are almost more likely to be the victims of sexual harassment and wage theft on the job.)
That is why groups like Restaurant Opportunities Centers United have advocated eliminating the tipped minimum wage altogether, and the National Employment Law Project has said that it should at least be set at 70 percent of the regular minimum wage, with both the full minimum wage and the tipped wage indexed to inflation.
“If my salary were $9.50 an hour, I would generally make about $700 biweekly,” she wrote. “That would mean the world to me because I would be able to realistically pay for my bills, help my family where they need, and also be so much closer to my goal and thus, closer to my dream.”
As it stands now, Russell is hoping that in addition to the tips she is able to save that people will donate to her schooling through her GoFundMe page. If you want to help Russell achieve her dream of becoming an actor – “remember my name, you will see it in lights one day :)” – by all means, donate. But what would really help Russell and the millions of other workers – with dreams that range from Hollywood stardom to as simple as being able to move into a decent apartment and take good care of their child – is fighting to make every job a job that pays a living wage, and making the tipped minimum wage an artifact of history.