The restaurant industry is the second largest employer in the U.S., providing jobs for nearly 11 million Americans. It’s also one of the country’s fastest-growing industries; revenues have risen every year since 2010.
But the reality of being a restaurant worker isn’t nearly as rosy. More than half–including waiters and bussers–are considered tipped employees, a designation that allows employers to pay them less than the minimum wage; in 43 states, their base wage can be as low as $2.13 per hour. And data suggests tips don’t cover the difference. Tipped workers in full-service restaurants are twice as likely to receive government assistance as workers in other sectors of American industry, a financial burden that costs taxpayers some $9.5 billion each year. They’re also mostly women and statistically more likely to endure sexual harassment, a by-product of having their pay tied to the subjective satisfaction of their customers.
Change on this front may be imminent. In 2015, two prominent restaurateurs, Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio, announced plans to eliminate tipping at their restaurants in favor of fixed, livable wages for all employees. Other independent eateries followed suit. Meanwhile, several states have voted to raise tipped wages, and a bill in Congress proposes that tipped restaurant employees be paid the full minimum wage.
Until then, it’s on diners to make an informed choice about where to eat–according to how food is served and how staff is treated.
Jayaraman is the co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and author of Forked: A New Standard of American Dining
This appears in the February 01, 2016 issue of TIME.