Waiting on Retirement
Aging and Economic Insecurity in Low-Wage Work
Mary Gatta



The crisis that aging workers face as they attempt to march to retirement crosses many occupational and class lines. Americans overall report anxiety about their financial security in retirement. Those who have some savings and investments worry about whether they have enough put away or if the funds will be wiped out in the marketplace. Those who own a home hope that their asset will have a decent economic value when they retire. And so many are concerned that one health crisis will leave them not only sick but economically broken. These worries are significant, but far too many workers have even more dire fears. Many Americans lack any resources—savings, homeownership, or investments—as they age and face an even more uncertain future. Workers who have spent their years in low-wage jobs are among the most vulnerable population. What we can learn from their experience aging in the workforce can provide critical insights into the retirement prospects for them and all of us. This book is my attempt to bring aging low-wage workers’ experiences to light to make clear the reality of retirement when workers do not earn enough to get by.

When I picked up my first tray of hamburgers and fries to serve to a table of hungry customers, I was a student in my early twenties earning money to help cover the costs of my education. I worked alongside an eclectic group of waiters and waitresses, including fellow students who were trying to defray college costs; twenty-somethings who were using restaurant work to earn a side income until their careers in teaching, health care, or financial services took off; and mothers providing a second income to support their families. There was also a group who called themselves “lifers.” The “lifers” were workers, often over 40 years old, who had spent their careers in restaurant work and were not planning on leaving. This group in particular was dependent on a subminimum wage—we were earning $2.13 an hour—and the generosity of customers’ tips to cover their monthly rent, food, and expenses for the duration of their working years. We all shared frustrations when customers stiffed us—leaving us with no tip for our service at their table. And, almost every time, this tip loss was framed in terms of their own economic struggles—a lost meal for their children or difficulty in making rent that month. Although we received biweekly paychecks, each paycheck would almost always be a VOID check, meaning that once taxes were taken out of our low hourly pay, there was no income left for us. I vividly remember some of my co-workers just laughing at their VOID check each pay period, and then tearing it up to throw in the trash.

While the lifers I worked with often shared the economic, emotional, and educational struggles they experienced daily, there were questions that I never asked them all those years ago—“What is going to happen when you can no longer work?” or “Are you planning for retirement?” During slow times in the restaurant we would talk about how hard it was to make rent but never how hard it was to save for a postwork future. Perhaps it was emotionally easier to stay in the present, or maybe my co-workers didn’t imagine that there would be a time when they could not work. It is their unspoken questions that motivate this book. What are the experiences of low-wage workers as they march toward retirement? How are workers who are barely getting by preparing for a time when they can no longer work? Are they forging new paths to a possibly secure retirement, or is the reality of their working lives making any semblance of retirement elusive?

To answer these questions, I spent time with restaurant workers to gain a more complete picture of the lives of low-wage workers and their growing concerns for their futures. To put this in the starkest terms, when I asked a twenty-year bartending veteran how he was planning for his future, he replied, “I have no savings, no retirement plan. I am just going to keep on working and hope I drop dead behind the bar.” His response brings to the forefront so many questions about our growing numbers of low-wage laborers. What happens when you spend your life working in a job that barely offers the income to survive? Naturally, you will find that your financial struggles are even more difficult if and when you retire. How can they be expected to save for a retirement when they cannot pay for basic expenses—such as housing, health care, and groceries? What’s more, low wages in one’s working years lead to even lower social security payments in retirement. This means that people who are already living on very little will be living on even less. Sadly there is a good chance that this will be the reality for close to half of Americans who are working today and merely scraping by. Looking at restaurant work—which has not provided stable retirement paths for many of its workers—provides us insights into how low-wage workers in a variety of industries are attempting to survive when they can no longer work. Could it be that, as the bartender told me, hoping for a quick death while one is still able to work is actually the only viable retirement option?

Why Restaurant Work?

As with so many ethnographers, my interest in low-wage work grew out of my own experiences working in the low-wage job of waiting tables. It seemed fitting to return to restaurant work for this book. Delving into an investigation of restaurant workers, we can learn a great deal about the improbability of retirement in jobs that pay too little. Throughout this book it will become clear that restaurant work, for the most part, is representative of low-wage work that cannot provide a stable route to any semblance of retirement—the wages are low, the benefits are almost nonexistent, and there is little opportunity for real advancement to economic security. Moreover, our service economy (restaurant work, retail, home health aides) is projected to continue to grow, so larger numbers of workers will find themselves working their entire lives without a real possibility of retirement. And, as I demonstrate with existing data, it is not just low-wage workers who are facing retirement challenges. Instead, a considerable number of younger workers outside restaurant work (Generation Xers and younger baby boomers) are approaching retirement with little or no savings. By focusing on the lived experiences of restaurant workers at different points in their lives, I can highlight a larger point that extends beyond restaurant workers—the impossibility of retirement in jobs that pay too little and lack the savings vehicles and benefits to prepare for long-term economic security. Further, while restaurant work provides us insight into the challenges of retiring in low-wage work, 20 percent of restaurant jobs are “good jobs”—ones that offer the wages and benefits for a more secure future.1 Therefore, the practices found in this smaller share of restaurant work provide insights in how to improve low-wage work so that workers can age with economic security. In sum, restaurant work provides insight to both the impossibility of retirement in jobs that don’t pay enough and ways to improve the prospects of economic security.

How is restaurant work representative of many low-wage jobs in the U.S. labor market? First, the demographic composite of the restaurant workforce is representative of the low-wage labor market as a whole in the United States. Second, the bulk (80 percent) of restaurant jobs are not good jobs in terms of labor market rewards: workers are paid minimum and subminimum wages,2 lack schedule control (making work/family balance and opportunities to gain additional income difficult), and often come without health care and retirement savings benefits. These job characteristics are found in many other low-wage work environments. Retail workers, for instance, are paid minimum wages with few benefits and often lack predictable schedules—leaving them uncertain of their income on a weekly basis. Third, restaurant work (like other low-wage work) is growing. For instance, similar to home health aides, restaurant workers are not susceptible to offshoring, as one needs their cook or bartender in the same place that they are eating. Restaurant work also provides insight into some of the most grievous instances of workplace practices, particularly working for tipped wages and occupational health and safety risks. These structural similarities and distinctions allow restaurant work to be an important case study, providing numerous insights and understandings much broader than the case itself.

Let’s first turn to the demographic composition of restaurant workers, particularly how they are representative of the larger low-wage labor market. Perhaps surprising to some, restaurant workers are not made up of all young people saving for college, like I was. They are workers of all ages—from students to parents—and many stay in the industry for twenty to forty years.3 Economist Heidi Shierholz has noted that occupations in the restaurant industry are also highly gendered and racialized, and this stratification contributes to disparities in labor market rewards. As compared to men, women are more likely to work in the lowest-paid tiers of cashiers/counter attendants, hosts, and wait staff. And African American and Hispanic workers are also disproportionately employed in low-paid restaurant occupations (such as dishwashers, dining room attendants, and cashiers) as compared to white workers. In contrast, white non-Hispanic workers are more likely to be in the higher-paying occupations of hosts/hostesses, wait staff, bartenders, and managers.4 Race and gender both play a significant role in whether a worker is among the 20 percent of restaurant workers who have the opportunity for livable wages during their tenure and the possibility for a more secure retirement.

Not only does the demographic composite of restaurant work mirror the larger low-wage labor market, but so do many of the work structures and employment conditions that shape economic opportunities for their workers in ways that often hinder economic security as they consider any form of retirement. First, most restaurant workers receive low pay, in some cases the lowest pay in the labor market. The median hourly wage, including tips, is $10.00 an hour, compared to $18.00 an hour outside the industry. Shierholz refers to this as the wage penalty of restaurant work. She notes that even accounting for demographic differences between restaurant workers and other workers, restaurant workers have hourly wages that are 17 percent lower than those of similar workers outside the industry. The largest restaurant industry occupation is waiter/waitress—making up nearly a quarter of all the jobs at an average wage (including tips) of $10.15 per hour. Within the restaurant industry, the lowest-paid occupation is cashiers/counter attendants, earning $8.23 per hour, and the highest-paid workers are managers, earning on average $15.42 per hour.5 This latter point brings into question whether there is any real upward mobility in lower-wage work. For example, one would consider a promotion to a management position a route to economic security, but with the median income hovering around $15 per hour, even higher-paid restaurant jobs do not secure a living wage in many parts of the United States. Shierholz found that one in six restaurant workers live blow the official poverty line, and more than two in five workers (43 percent) live with less than half the income that would qualify them as reaching the poverty line.6 Further, ROC United researchers found that restaurant workers hold seven of the ten lowest-paying occupations in the United States—earning less than farm workers and domestic workers.7

In 2014, while working at Wider Opportunities for Women, I partnered with ROC United to survey restaurant workers on the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy made a direct hit on the state. Eighty-seven percent of the workers we surveyed worked for tips. Of those, 82 percent earned less than the state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in 2013. And once state and federal taxes are applied to their pay, their paychecks are voided out, signifying that their wages did not equal owed taxes. They then would owe back taxes at the end of the year. While living on tips can be a route to economic security for some, for most workers it is economically precarious. Workers’ tips, and hence their economic security, depend on customers’ whims. Research finds that tips are only weakly related to a worker’s attentiveness, effort, or skills but more likely dependent on the server’s gender, race, and attractiveness, or smaller gestures disconnected from the work of serving meals.8 This aesthetic labor is common in other low-wage industries such as retail jobs—and as workers age, they tend to have less and less of the aesthetics needed to secure jobs.9 And in more expensive restaurants, where larger tips are more prevalent, women and people of color are less likely to find work.

However, financial insecurity is not just a product of a subminimum wage and minimal tips. Restaurant workers, like other low-wage workers, may also be the victim of wage theft—the deliberate withholding of wages to which workers are legally entitled—which comes in many forms, among them not paying workers for preparing their work stations for their shifts, not paying overtime wages, charging workers a percentage of their tips when customers use credit cards, and other illegal workplace practices. In my research with ROC United on New Jersey restaurant workers, 70 percent of surveyed workers reported that they did not receive overtime pay when they worked more than forty hours a week, eight hours per day, or six days per week. Forty percent reported that they had worked off the clock without being paid their hourly wage in the past year.10 And while wage theft negatively affects all workers, those earning $2.13 an hour are particularly vulnerable.

To earn the wages needed to support their families, workers must work the hours and days that restaurants are busiest, which tend to be evenings, weekends, and holidays. Working these nontraditional hours creates significant challenges in balancing work and family issues, caring for family members, and, if needed, arranging for child care. And it makes it quite difficult to secure a second job to make ends meet. As a result, workers’ low wages are compounded by a high degree of schedule inflexibility, making their economic insecurity even more precarious, much of which is tied to the common practice of “volatile workplace scheduling.” Here, both the number of hours and the timing of those hours can change day to day, week to week, and season to season at the discretion of management. This unpredictability means that a worker may have to work different hours and different days each week with no consistent days off. Further, schedules are often posted with little advance notice (often only a day or two), making it very difficult to schedule life appointments around work.

Additionally, managers can make last-minute changes to the work schedule once it is posted if it appears that customer traffic may be higher or lower than anticipated. Managers may also send a worker home if the establishment is not busy. And if the restaurant is busy, workers who are scheduled for an end time may be forced to stay later, a practice known as mandatory overtime. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers have virtually no legal recourse to challenge terminations or retaliations for refusing mandatory overtime. These last-minute requirements and unpredictable schedules create challenges for workers, especially those who depend on public transportation to get to and from work and those who have family obligations. In addition, workers are sometimes “on call,” scheduled to work only if the shift is busy. These workers need to be able to leave at a moment’s notice to go to work. Further, schedules are affected by the time of the year: tourism and holiday seasons can lead to longer hours for workers. All this makes estimating one’s income a challenge. And if one does not know what they will be earning annually, it is hard to judge how much, if anything they can save.

Low-wage work has not just a negative economic impact on workers; it also has a physical impact. Much analysis of service economy jobs focuses on its interactive elements, often ignoring or overlooking the physical dimensions of such work. Yet as Karla Erickson notes in her study of restaurants, the “skillful use of the body is necessary for this work: a staff that communicates well will get so accustomed to passing each other, switching places, transferring trays, sharing space and helping each other that words no longer are necessary during the busiest part of the evening.”11 As a result, workers’ bodies become part of the work they perform. This is important as their bodies age in the workplace. The long hours and low wages contribute to the heavy toll that waiting tables puts on workers’ bodies. Servers carry heavy, hot plates quickly through the dining room, sometimes balancing up to six or seven plates at a time. As floors in kitchens are often slippery and backstage service spaces tend to be quite crowded, servers need considerable agility to maneuver. Quite astutely, Erickson comments, “You need to be in good shape to wait tables, but you don’t get in shape doing it.”12

The degree of physical work is further compounded as workers report that they do not often get formal breaks in their workday and can work ten to twelve hours without once sitting down. In my ethnographic work at the Café Red restaurant years ago, managers told me that they provide servers with a “choice” regarding breaks, but many times servers would rather continue taking tables than take a break (as taking a break means forfeiting at least one round of tips).13 Yet my field observation showed something different: during busy times managers would inform servers that they would try to give breaks, but if the restaurant remained busy the servers would have to work through their break. Breaks therefore became a privilege. In lieu of formal breaks, servers had to squeeze in time between serving customers to go to the bathroom and eat meals. Often they would get food and then place it somewhere in the kitchen where it might sit for hours, with the server nibbling at bites whenever they found a free second.

Such a lifestyle, when maintained long enough, puts strains on muscles, bones, and digestive systems. On-the-job injuries can affect long-term health. ROC United director Saru Jayaraman notes that the U.S. Department of Labor ranked the restaurant industry as the third highest in total number in nonfatal occupational injuries and illness. Nearly 200,000 accidents are reported in restaurants each year, and ROC United members reported that almost half (49 percent) of those workers had suffered work-related cuts and 46 percent had been burned on the job. One study found that hot grease in fast-food restaurants accounted for half of the burn injuries and for more than 40 percent of the burns in full-service cafés.14 Workers also often report backaches and sore muscles from carrying heavy trays and being on their feet for long periods of time.

And the experiences of restaurant workers are similar to those of other low-wage workers.15 Liz Borkowski and Celeste Monforton estimate that the number of work-related fatalities, illnesses, and injuries experienced by workers in low-wage jobs exceeds 1.72 million.16 For instance, home health aides must lift heavy bodies and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that the most common injuries reported included sprains, strains, and musculoskeletal injuries, which can haunt workers for years.17 Similarly, a 2010 study found that retail workers experience lasting impacts of musculoskeletal disorders and carpal tunnel syndrome.18

The restaurant environment itself, like other service workplaces, also matters for workers’ long-term health risks. Secondhand smoke can cause or aggravate many respiratory problems, including bronchitis and asthma, and increase the risk of heart attack and some types of cancers. Excessive and constant noise (such as loud music) is one of the primary causes of job stress and fatigue. For instance, a study of urban music club employees, including waiters, waitresses, and bartenders, found that the clubs’ noise levels far exceeded the maximum exposure limit allowed by the government, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The authors concluded that the employees were at significant risk of hearing loss later in life.19

Further, the nature of shift work itself causes both short-term and long-term problems for workers, such as shift work sleep disorder (SWSD), which, according to the Cleveland Clinic, is a sleep disorder that affects people who frequently rotate shifts or work at night. The schedules of these workers go against the body’s natural circadian rhythm, and individuals have difficulty adjusting to the different sleep and wake schedule. SWSD, as defined by the Cleveland Clinic, consists of a constant or recurrent pattern of sleep interruption that results in difficulty sleeping or excessive sleepiness. This disorder is common in people who work nontraditional hours, usually between ten p.m. and six a.m. In fact, while Americans are increasingly getting less sleep each night, those who earn the least are far more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep a night. A 2014 Gallup Poll found that about half of people in households earning less than $23,000 annually sleep less than six hours a night, as compared to only one third of individuals in households earning over $75,000.20 The American Sleep Association noted that shift work sleeping disorders may have devastating long-term effects as well. Employees working in shift work positions for more than ten years have shown drastically increased rates of heart disease and gastrointestinal disease, up to a 300 percent increase in the incidence rates of the diseases compared to the general population.21 In a rather disturbing study, neuroscientists had mice imitate the schedules of shift workers; the rodents’ brain cells began permanently dying off after only days of keeping that schedule.22

Despite all the economic and physical demands, many of these workers rarely receive fringe benefits that could help defray life expenses. Only 14 percent of workers receive health insurance from their employer, compared with roughly half of other workers. And only 8.4 percent of restaurant workers are included in a retirement plan at their job—one fifth the rate of pension coverage outside the restaurant industry.23 So the workers who are experiencing significant health impacts from their work often lack the health and economic resources to address the problems.

There is one final reason why restaurant work provides an important snapshot into the low-wage labor market. While most restaurant jobs are not good jobs in terms of labor market rewards, a small number are good jobs. ROC United research shows that 20 percent of the jobs in the industry provide livable wages. These are largely chef, server, and bartender positions in fine-dining restaurants.24 Yet perhaps not surprisingly, they are predominantly held by white men. However, these jobs do represent what we would consider “good jobs”—economic-security wages, health care and retirement benefits, and sometimes union protections. This means that there are models in the restaurant workplaces, along with workers’ case studies, that can be drawn upon to present a way forward in the low-wage labor market that can offer more economic security for workers as they march to retirement.

In this book we meet low-wage workers as they struggle to get by and plan ahead for a life without work. Their stories are meant to demonstrate the gravity of their situation but also highlight what challenges lie ahead for all of us. Throughout this journey we look to restaurant work as a classic example of unstable, low-wage work that—for a significant portion of workers—provided neither the income or the kinds of benefits that could lead to a stable retirement. There are many other kinds of low-wage work like this in American industries. Employment in the service economy is growing as a share of the overall economy, which has devastating implications for retirement for more and more of the workforce. I use the example of restaurant work to make the larger point about the impossibility of retiring when jobs pay too little to make ends meet (let alone save), have no health or retirement benefits, and offer few options for real advancement.

Sadly, the retirement crisis is already upon us and will only get worse for everyone as baby boomers retire. Consequences will be felt most acutely by low-wage workers, as in the case of restaurant workers, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet while they work. If middle-class retirees are struggling and low-wage workers are struggling, we can assume this problem transcends boundaries of socioeconomic class and will only get worse for everyone unless drastic policy changes are made. If we begin to see all our experiences as intimately connected, we can then develop and implement collective policy responses that will improve economic security for all.


1. Jayaraman 2016.

2. For some restaurant occupations, low wages are often tied to those characterized as “tipped workers.” These are servers and bartenders but also bussers, bar backs, and hostesses, among others. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers—known as the “tip credit” or “subminimum wage” system—is just $2.13 an hour, less than a third of the regular federal minimum of $7.25. This rate assumes that combined earnings including tips will ultimately make up the income difference to bring the hourly wage up to the minimum wage so that total pay will approximate that of other low-wage laborers. As so much research has shown, this is a flawed assumption.

3. Jayaraman 2014, 5

4. Shierholz 2014.

5. Shierholz 2014.

6. Shierholz 2014.

7. Jayaraman 2014, 71

8. Bendick, Eanni, and Jayaraman 2009.

9. Gatta 2011.

10. Gatta and Unrath

11. Erickson 2004, 80.

12. Erickson 2004, 80.

13. Gatta 2009; Gatta 2000.

14. Centers for Disease Control 1993.

15. Jayaraman 2014.

16. Borkowski and Monforton 2012.

17. Occupational Safety and Health Administration 2017.

18. Claussen 2011.

19. Lawrence and Turrentine 2008.

20. Jones 2013.

21. American Sleep Association 2017.

22. Zhang et al. 2014.

23. Shierholz 2014.

24. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United 2011.