My Experience as a College Graduate in the Restaurant Industry

(Flickr/Mahat Tattva Dasa)

(Flickr/Mahat Tattva Dasa)

The crisp winter air stings as it hits my face on the way out of the restaurant. I’m not sure which hurts more – the winter chill or my empty pocketbook – as I briskly shove 87 crinkled dollar bills inside. It’s a Saturday night. I just worked a grueling 12-hour shift on my feet for a measly $87.

My empty stomach aches because I wasn’t allowed to stop and eat, except for a 45-minute break nearly 8 hours ago. Nothing’s open, except for the bars and the 24-hour pizza place around the corner. I all but inhale a $3 slice before making my way home. When my head finally hits the pillow, I try desperately not to think about the fact that I have to get up in seven hours and do it all over again.

It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t wake up every day with $60,000 in college debt hanging like a noose around my neck.

“I should be able to do better than this,” I think.

I grew up poor. Neither of my parents finished college. As the first in my family to finish my degree, I thought this was supposed to be my way out. Why did I just spend $60,000 and six years of my life, only to end up back where I started — waiting tables?

This was my nightmare. Somehow, somewhere, I failed.

But I know that’s not true. I’m a first-generation college graduate with a master’s degree from a prestigious university. My degrees should be evidence of success, not failure. Something else is going on here.

Since the Great Recession, part-time job growth has skyrocketed and continues to remain high. Currently, there are 260,000 college graduates working for minimum wage and over 43 percent of minimum wage workers have at least some college education. That’s twice as many as the pre-recession rate of 127,000 in 2005. Moreover, five out of ten of the largest low- wage jobs are in restaurants, where the tipped minimum wage is only $2.13 per hour. Imagine paying back school loans on minimum wage, let alone $2.13 an hour, hoping that someone you serve leaves you a generous tip.

What’s worse, research shows that college grads are pushing non-graduates out of work because we’re all competing for the same low-wage jobs. It looks like we are creating an economy where a college degree is the new norm not for a professional job.For any job.

That’s why the Miller-Harkin Act is so important. It would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 and, more importantly, would also raise the tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage, or $7.07. That makes President Barack Obama’s proposal of $4.90 look modest.

People who work hard and go to school deserve to make a living. Our economy is not designed to offer that.

If I can’t find a better job, it will take me as many as 292 months to pay off my student loans. That’s 24 years. I’ll be debt free just in time to help my future children get student loans for their college education.

So the cycle continues.

Marcie Gardner is an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies for its Economic Hardship Reporting Project.