Waiting tables and serving drinks can be a great side job for some extra cash or a full-time job that rakes in a decent salary for hard work. Many people look to these jobs to cover gaps in their income potentially during hard times or times when they have a flexible schedule. Gaining experience and confidence, these jobs can also turn into long-term gigs or you may even be promoted to a higher-level management position.

The nuances of these jobs can vary broadly depending on where you live and the type of establishment you work for. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) broadly breaks these jobs into a few categories, including:

  • Restaurants and Other Eating Places
  • Drinking Places (Alcoholic Beverages)         
  • Civic and Social Organizations       
  • Traveler Accommodation
  • Other Amusement and Recreation Industries
  • Gambling Industries          
  • Special Food Services
  • Scenic and Sightseeing Transportation 

Working in the food service business can be quite challenging. Similar to other retail jobs, your main concern is typically the customer, so it requires a friendly demeanor and customer service skills. Food service waiters and bartenders are also responsible for managing money and closing out checks, which adds an additional element to the job.

Laws on Hourly Wages

The federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25. This has been the minimum wage since 2009. Individual states are free to enact laws that raise the minimum wage above the federal level and several have done this in some capacity.

In Nov. 2020, Florida residents voted to increase the state's minimum wage incrementally (beginning at $10 per hour on Sept. 30, 2021) until it reaches $15 per hour in Sept. 2026.

The Fair Labor Standards Act is the primary legislation governing wages in the labor market. This legislation covers environments and provisions for child labor. Each state may also have its own legislation around labor standards. In general, most employers can set their own requirements for education and age. Work environments will vary by the establishment with each business required to pass annual inspections as guided by federal and state laws. For most establishments, the business's specialty will be the main driver of the work environment overall.

Hourly Wage Expectations

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2019, reports the federal average hourly wage for waiters at $12.88 and bartenders at $13.46.  This pay can vary widely with additional tip income.

Waiters and bartenders are part of a special category of wage-earners known as tipped employees. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), tipped employees are defined as those who regularly receive at least $30 in tip income per month. It is this additional and regular income that can at times provide a basis for reduced federal minimum wage standards for this category of workers. When combined pay does not reach at least $7.25 per hour or the state's minimum wage level, then the employer must make up the difference.

Top Industries

Waiters and bartenders can expect a variance in pay across different industries. The BLS reports that some of the highest paying waiter and bartender jobs are in the areas of travel and sightseeing businesses. Waiters can make up to $14.18 per hour in this category and bartenders $15.50. Overall across all industries, waiters report an average salary range of $8.37 to $20.65. The comprehensive average salary range for bartenders is $8.55 to $22.18.

Top States

Pay for waiters and bartenders can also vary widely across states. The state minimum wage requirements can affect this.

Across the U.S., the best paying states for waiters and waitresses include:

The best paying states for bartenders include:

Special Considerations

The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides updated data on the wage expectations for waiters and bartenders at the links below:

Tip income can be a key component of the wage for waiters and bartenders. Data from the BLS is based on reported earnings by individuals. Individuals earning tips have an obligation to report that income for taxable purposes.

The process for taxation of wages for waiters and bartenders can vary widely. Workers may be paid on either a W-2 or 1099.  Some establishments may require the monthly reporting of tips to the employer. Some places may also have a tip-sharing system that shares tips with other employees of the business and therefore requires a daily reporting system.