Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Your favorite restaurant is the front line in the fight for a living wage in Charleston. With people streaming back into dining rooms faster than managers can hire workers to staff them, some of the most in-demand jobs in the city are also among the lowest-paid.

If Charleston is going to rely on hospitality and tourism industry workers to fuel the area’s economic success, they deserve to be paid a living wage. State lawmakers should respect and acknowledge that work and set a state minimum wage of $15 per hour.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed just how tenuous Charleston’s tourism-based economy can be, and how dependent on a steady paycheck its workers are, even if wages are meager at best. Food preparation and serving jobs employ nearly 35,000 people in the Charleston area, more than 10% of the area’s workforce, according to the latest figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

About 6,000 are servers who can be paid less than the federal $7.25-per-hour minimum wage if they make up the difference in tips. But even with tips, Charleston waiters and waitresses are paid less than $10 per hour on average, according to the BLS. About one-third of local food-industry employees work in fast food where they’re paid less than $11 per hour on average. That comes to less than $23,000 per year to live in Charleston, where an average rent would suck up nearly $18,000 per year, according to a recent real estate industry survey. Could you live on $5,000 per year for everything else?

Restaurant groups in larger national markets have tried getting rid of tipping altogether in favor of higher wages. But once the pandemic hit last year, even the most progressive owners abandoned virtuous experiments and brought back tips, conceding the industry was built on rock-bottom hourly wages.

With data showing diners’ tips disproportionately benefit white workers, the paycheck-to-paycheck restaurant economy gets even worse for nonwhite workers, exacerbating wealth disparities rooted in institutional racism. Low-paid restaurant workers should not be at the mercy of customer generosity to make ends meet. They are professionals —  fathers, mothers, siblings and friends — not charity cases who need patronage.

As long as tipping exists, our tourism economy is effectively perpetuating an unfair, discriminatory system. This is unacceptable.

The downstream tourism-industry impacts of the coronavirus pandemic don’t stop with restaurants, of course. Hotel staff, drivers and retail workers have felt the pinch as economic activity picks up faster each month. With no immediate cure to tourism-industry wages and the busy summer season around the corner, it will get worse before it gets better.