The Bare Minimum Series: One Fair Wage

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The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been stuck at $2.13 an hour since 1991. This means that if you’re a restaurant server, bartender, hairdresser, ride-share driver, or other worker that receives tips, your employer is only required to pay you $2.13 an hour. Even with this meager requirement, there have been countless instances of wage theft, thanks to today’s age of credit cards, we have few ways of knowing that tipped workers are receiving the entirety of their tips.

Eliminating the sub-minimum wage is a key provision of the Raise the Wage Act, and it is absolutely critical to lifting millions of American workers out of working poverty and treating their work with the dignity it deserves.

Let’s get to the facts: the history of tipped-wages is rooted in slavery. The system of tipping originated in feudal Europe, when lords would give their servants a few extra coins for performing their job well. The tipping system, comprised of separate wages for tipped and non-tipped workers, eventually ended up making its way to America, and quickly turned into a whirlwind of economic exclusion and hardship for disadvantaged workers.

Twenty-one percent of female restaurant servers live in poverty, and restaurant servers are 2.7 times as likely to be in poverty than other workers. Why? Paying tipped workers only $2.13 an hour makes them dependent on the tips given at the discretion of their customers. This leads to workers being held accountable for things they have no control over – like kitchen efficiency and food quality. Without a substantial minimum wage to fall back on, every cent matters. Really, one tip can be the difference between being able to make a rent payment, paying for child care, or other necessities. Workers should not have to rely on the generosity of their customers just to be able to get by.

The numbers also show that in many ways, the subminimum wage has a history of disproportionately cheating women, African Americans, and Hispanic workers. Black tipped workers in Chicago have three times the poverty rate of the rest of the US workforce. Even worse, that statistic jumps to 3.5 for African-American women. In the District of Columbia, tipped workers use public assistance at a higher rate than the rest of their counterparts, and are twice as likely to live in poverty as the city’s workforce.

And it gets even worse. The dangerously low subminimum wage often translates to unwarranted harassment toward female tipped workers, who make up a majority of tipped workers. The food and restaruant industry only makes up seven percent of the work force, but sexual harassment for women in the food and hospitality industry is nearly thirteen times that number, with ninety percent of female restaruant workers experiencing sexual harrasment at some point. Female tipped workers are struggling with poverty and sexual harassment at alarming rates, and too often they are forced to tolerate this treatment for the sake of providing for their families. Implementing one fair wage has the potential to empower women to feel less obligated to put up with inappropriate behavior.

The current tipped-wage system puts too much trust in employers to guarantee that workers are receiving their full tips. Implementing one fair wage will not eliminate all of the disparities that tipped workers are subject to, but it will be the start of ensuring that all workers are paid fairly and treated ethically.

This is why the Raise the Wage Act, which will guarantee all workers the same federal minimum wage, is the best option to protect workers from predatory wage theft, lift millions of workers out of poverty, boost the economy, and ensure all workers are treated fairly by federal standards. It’s far past time for tipped workers to get a raise, and a little more respect in the workplace.

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