A bartender’s TikTok video that recently went viral has drawn more attention to the often shockingly low wages many laborers in the service industry receive.
Aaliyah Cortez, a mother of one who works as a server and bartender at a sports bar in Austin, Texas, recently posted a video of a paycheck totaling $9.28. In the video she explains that this was the total amount she had earned for working over 70 hours in two weeks.
The video, which was posted in January 2020, has garnered over 937,000 views.
“So this is why you should always tip your bartenders, servers or anyone who waits on you,” Cortez says in her video. She then goes on to break down her hourly wage (at $2.13, she would have earned about $150 before taxes), and demonstrates how deductions like social security end up taking away such a significant portion of her earnings.
The point of the video, Cortez told TODAY Food, was not to shame her employer (which she preferred not to name), but rather to remind customers of how important tipping really is to service industry workers.
That low paycheck may have shocked many on social media, but for Cortez and many other servers and bartenders, it's not an anomaly.
“All of my checks can vary just depending on how much I made in tips for the two-week period. I’ve gotten zero-dollar checks to about $12," she said. "You start to just see your check as a laughable thing after a while."
According to Cortez, customers not tipping isn’t even the biggest issue at hand. Since her salary, and therefore her livelihood, is almost entirely dependent on tips, her weekly earnings can vary wildly — and it's all at the discretion of the people she serves — even when she's provided excellent service.
“Generally, most people will tip, but there will be those few tables that will under tip, or not even tip at all,” she said. Sometimes, factors out of her control (like food being made incorrectly in the kitchen or coming out late) will affect her bottom line.
“The most upsetting situation happens where a table doesn’t tip is from sports fans when their team doesn’t win. We have absolutely no control of that and we’ve most likely waited on them for a few hours!” she added.
Cortez thinks those who do not tip simply don't understand how service industry wages work in the U.S.
“I absolutely believe people who haven’t worked themselves or have someone close in the industry don’t understand how much a tip really means to us. We literally rely solely on tips,” said Cortez. “Not all of the tip goes to us, we have to pay the people who brought the food out to the customers and the people who bussed the table for us and if a table walks out on their tab, that comes out of our tips."
In the past few years, as restaurant industry workers from both large and small companies continue to fight for better wages, the issue of how reliant those workers should be on tips has been at the forefront of many legal discussions. Some states have changed their laws to provide better wages for service workers, but many — facing backlash from restaurant owners as well as some tipped staffers — have not.
“I believe the minimum wage for any tipped employee should be raised, federally and statewide," Cortez said. "There are so many different people in the industry and for so many reasons — from single parents to people in school — and we deserve to have adequate and consistent pay so we don’t have to struggle to keep our heads above water."
In Texas, where Cortez works, the minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, but those in the service industry often receive a “cash wage,” which is applicable to those who can get tips. The minimum cash wage in Texas is actually $2.13.
“When you earn a $2 or $3 wage, as it is in most states, your wage is so low ... you’re living completely off of tips,” immigration lawyer Saru Jayaraman told The Globe Post in September. “You have to put up with whatever a customer does to you — however they touch you, treat you or talk to you because the customer pays your bills, not your boss. The customer is always right because they are the ones who feed your family.”
For Cortez, she recognizes that, for now, she may be in a better position than some, but is still determined to keep bringing awareness to the issue.
“Fortunately, I’m able to make enough to get by with a little struggle here and there, but it’s a little tough to think that if an emergency came up, it could hurt me financially," she said. "I, of course, think there needs to be change in the industry, but until that happens hopefully people can finally understand the importance of tipping. I promise you, we’ll be very appreciative."