Your Job Is Exploiting You

A bartender shares his story—and invites you to share yours.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

If you work for someone, you are being exploited. This information isn’t new, but it is difficult to think about. Or, more honestly, it is unpleasant to think about. In the aftermath of the Occupy movement and the various protests, sit-ins, marches, and riots that have taken place from New York, to Wisconsin, to Cairo, to Hong-Kong it feels like we must be seeing the whole picture.

We are smart.

We are wired to the most contemporary news sources.

We know very well the grim state of wealth distribution and the following inequality that comes from it, and while it is true that the revolutionary consciousness shuddering to life inside of us has begun confronting many dismal truths about the capitalist world around, it seems as though we have leapt to macro-examination and skipped over micro-examination.

In other words: we talk about being the 99 percent, and we rail against the enormous financial institutions and enormous corporations that enable the 1 percent to sit so snugly on their leather settees, but we often forget that we, as employed individuals, sell our labor every day to business owners who, although they may be very nice people who mean well, exploit us as much as possible.

It doesn’t matter if you are a waiter, baker, computer programmer, sales rep, digital designer, cosmetologist, high school teacher, anesthesiologist, truck driver, retail salesperson, warehouse worker, art handler, copyeditor, copywriter, barista, bus driver, cab driver, air traffic controller, car washer, nurse, construction worker, freelance whatever, food delivery person, line cook, prep cook, or Barnes & Noble employee. You are being exploited.

For the past several years, I have worked as a bartender in Madison, Wisconsin. The customers who pass through are a wide mix, and I’m happy to say that, unlike many bars in the area, we still attract the working class base that once populated the majority of taverns, bars, and pubs throughout Wisconsin. My co-workers are kind, and my bosses (Bernie Sanders supporters to boot!) care about my wellbeing. Nevertheless, because I live in a capitalist society, they are exploiting me.

The following is a brief examination of how this works.

Because of the relative complexity of the wage situation experienced by tipped employees, I will not be able to go into the greatest of details here. What I aim to do is give you the basic information regarding my specific circumstances as a bartender in Madison, which I hope will inspire a chain of conversations around the specific circumstances of many other jobs.

To a certain extent, it almost seems as though working in a restaurant allows me to step outside of the capitalist system. Because I work for tips rather than for a steady wage, my income is not fixed, and because it is generally known that the “proper” tip amount is 20 percent of the bill, my hourly income is usually, but not always, fairly high.

For instance, my normal Thursday shift lasts from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m. During this time, I make an average of $100 in tips (again, none of this is actually fixed: I might start at 2:45 and end at 9, or I might start at 3 and end at 8; then again, if it’s a slow night, I may only come home with $60 in tips). Therefore, my tip-wage for that day is a nice $20 an hour.

According to my pay-stubs, the restaurant I work for also pays me $5 an hour. It could then be argued that I am, once the two figures are added together, making $25 dollars an hour. As far as it concerns the money in my pocket (and as far as the people who supply my paycheck are concerned), this is correct. It is one of the great triumphs of capitalism that most of the time we don’t look any further than the money in our pockets, and in this way we (I) are (am) continually taken advantage of.


Because the money that lands in my pocket is the result of two different transactions: one from my boss-employer and the other from my customer-employer. My boss-employer pays me $5 an hour, and, on the Thursday in question, my customer-employer paid me $20 an hour. Except that this isn’t correct either. The term “customer-employer” implies a large and unified mass of people that walk through the restaurant on any given day, and it also suggest that the amount they pay me is a pre-arranged contract that we have both agreed upon. Neither of which are true.

Each person I come in contact with through the bartender/customer relationship contains the beginning, middle, and end of a separate transaction. They can tip me as little or as much as they want, and, in fact, a “tip” is not really a wage at all but instead is a reward for a service rendered. The customers don’t hold any legal obligation regarding the extra money they add on to the check at the end of their meal, so they aren’t my “employers,” but I am financially dependent on their generosity regarding that money, so they are my masters.

My real employers, by only paying me $5.00 an hour, offload the responsibility of paying me a fair wage to the customer—but because this is only between me and the customer (i.e. It isn’t reflected in the bill), my employer isn’t losing any money.

In fact, by paying me well below the federal minimum wage, my employers create money for themselves—to the tune of $2.25 per hour, per bartender.

Things have not always been this way. Up until 1966, there was no difference between the federal minimum wage for tipped employees and the federal minimum wage for anyone else. Then policy changed so that tipped employees could be paid a subminimum wage, but it was determined that this wage must never be less than 50 percent of the federal minimum wage. Therefore, if I were a bartender in 1967, my wage could not be less than $4.71 (the minimum wage at that time being $9.43).

Subminimum wages fluctuated for a while, rising and falling in tandem with the federal minimum wage, but in 1996, President Clinton signed the Minimum Wage Increase Act. The primary purpose of this act was to raise the federal minimum wage from $4.25 to $4.75. However, it also detached the tipped minimum wage from the federal minimum wage, freezing it at $2.13 an hour—where it remains to this day.

What this means is that it is illegal for any employer to pay tipped employees (federally defined as workers who make at least $30 a month in tips) less than $2.13 an hour. This number has not changed for two decades.

Now, it is true that each state is allowed to create their own tipped minimum wage, just as long as it doesn’t fall below the magic $2.13, and some states (Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Montana, Minnesota, California, and Nevada) require all employers to pay their tipped employees the full minimum wage of that state. In Wisconsin, employers are only required to pay their tipped employees above the federal tipped minimum wage, but how much over is up to the discretion of the employer. As I have already stated, in my particular circumstance, I am paid $5 an hour, so $2.87 over the federal minimum. The waiters where I work, on the other hand, are only paid $3.25 an hour.

In non-tipping jobs, the owner/capitalist pays the worker the socially determined value of the worker’s labor time to create a product that the owner/capitalist then sells to the customer.

In tipping jobs, the owner/capitalist pays the worker far below the socially determined value of the worker’s labor time to create/serve a product that the owner/capitalist then sells to the customer who’s responsibility it becomes to directly pay for the worker’s wages.

To the capitalist, this all sounds like more whining from the peanut gallery. After all, just looking at the numbers paints a pretty picture for me: $25 an hour, only five (max!) hours a day for four days a week of work. Most people in the world have it much worse than I do. Should I stop complaining, go to work, and be happy that I’m not filling in potholes on the highway or cold-calling human resource departments for 50 hours a week? That I’m not falling asleep over my half-assembled iPhone in a Chinese factory? It would be easier if I did, but I don’t think it will help. If we all follow that dictum, if we all look at our working situations and say, “it’s not great but could be worse!” then we are, rather than giving a less privileged group a chance to speak, letting the loudspeaker of capitalism keep broadcasting uninterrupted.

The service industry, specifically in Wisconsin, is the only industry in which I have any deep experience. In Wisconsin’s service industry, there are numerous instances of exploitation and unfair treatment of employees. Not examining these instances allows them to continue unchecked, and this is the sort of mute response that capitalism counts on from me. From us.

I am by no means suggesting that my experiences are “normal,” or that what I have experienced is especially shocking. We, the 99 percent, are engaged continually in activities that exploit us. Rather than standing aside so that the most exploited can come forward—an act that results in no one coming forward because we are afraid of being labeled as narcissistic assholes who have no concern for those around us—we should each of us be exploring the limits (or lack thereof) of our own exploitations.

I am a Madison, Wisconsin bartender, and this is how my work exploits me.

Useful links and sources:

Samuel Annis lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his partner and their Newfoundland.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.