The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. The Florida minimum wage is $8.46.
Herman Younger was getting paid $5.25.
Younger, a former restaurant server and UF political science graduate, is petitioning on Change.org to create a union to improve the working conditions of restaurant employees. Younger’s idea, the American Restaurant Workers Union, would be the first union in Florida for tipped workers in the service and hospitality industries.
“There is continuous mistreatment and underpayment in this industry,” Younger said.
The now 23-year-old worked as a server at Bahama Breeze for five months and at T.G.I. Fridays for four months before he left the restaurant industry frustrated.
He said his goals for the union include: providing legal representation in harassment cases, ending “at will” laws that allow employers to fire employees at their own will and fighting for both automatic gratuity (where tips are automatically added to the bill) and a living wage.
According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers can pay tipped workers as low as $2.13 an hour as long as tips add up to the minimum wage.
After months of working as a server, Younger said he left the industry because he wasn’t making enough money to support himself during slow seasons. With an hourly salary of $5.25, he and other servers depended on tips. Some people didn’t tip well, he said. Some people didn’t tip at all.
In the Fall and Spring, Younger said he could go home with $300 to $400 a week, but during the summer, he was lucky to get $70 a week. If the restaurant wasn’t busy, he or other servers could be sent home early. The restaurant saved money, but his pay was effectively cut, Younger said.
“Systemically, it’s an issue that the industry exploits the working class,” he said. “Whether you are a server making $5.25 the hour or a retail employee making $8.25 the hour, these aren’t livable wages.”
Younger said servers deserve a wage based on the cost of living in a specific area, which neither the federal nor state minimum wage meet. He may have had money to spend in the busy season, but during slow months, he had trouble paying rent and buying groceries. Luckily, his parents were able to help support him in his rough patch.
After leaving the restaurant industry, he began working for a cannabis dispensary, where he said he’s being paid a “fair, livable wage.” Younger declined to disclose the amount of his current wage.
At the time of writing, the petition has 109 signatures. Once it gets 1,000 signatures, Younger said he will speak with established unions, such as the Alachua County Labor Coalition, and head to Washington D.C. to lobby for laws to protect restaurant workers.
Ashley Nguyen, a coordinator with the Alachua County Labor Coalition, said unions are beneficial to workers. The coalition organizes workers across the county and advocates for similar goals, including a living wage and the end of “at will” laws.
Unions foster a community where the workers are empowered and help change laws by sending lobbyists to Congress, Nguyen said. She added unionized workers usually make 30 to 40 percent more than those who are not unionized.
“[Workers] are more powerful together as a force against unfair labor practices,” Nguyen said.
Younger said his union also hopes to be a force against mistreatment and harassment of workers. As many as 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men in the restaurant industry report experiencing sexual harassment.
Laksmi Arroyo, a 19-year-old Gainesville native, said she’s been sexually harassed — by both customers and supervisors — several times in the year-and-a-half she’s worked as a server. At her first job as a hostess at Napolatanos, Arroyo said a head server kissed her.
Arroyo now works at Paramount Grill, where she splits tips with other servers and bussers. While fair during busy months, she said sharing makes tips look like scraps during the slow season.
Arroyo said a living wage or automatic gratuity would make the work she puts in worth it.
“I think a union would definitely make things safer,” she said. “It could also make it so I’m not battling my co-workers for shifts and tips.”
Editors' note: The photo information has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Herman Younger's name.