Give tipped workers raises, not roses, this Valentine’s Day

For most Americans, Valentine’s Day is a lighthearted holiday filled with roses, chocolates, and maybe even a few of Cupid’s arrows. But for the 12 million workers in America’s restaurant industry, February 14th is one of their busiest days of the year.

If you are one of the millions of Americans going out to eat tonight, you may be interested to know how much – or, more accurately, how little – your server makes. If you are dining out in Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, or Washington, your server makes the state minimum wage plus tips. But if you’re dining anywhere else in the country, your server likely doesn’t even earn the minimum wage. In fact, they may make just $2.13 an hour before tips.

If you think that’s absurdly low, you’re absolutely right. For over thirty years, the federal subminimum tipped wage has stood frozen at a deplorable $2.13 an hour. Along the way, it has forced millions of workers who rely on tips – restaurant servers, bartenders, hairdressers, ride-share drivers, and more – into financial instability and poverty. It also disproportionately affects Black and Brown Americans, who comprise no less than 48% of the tipped workforce – a not-altogether surprising finding given that the tipped wage has racist origins rooted in slavery.

What this means is that most of the restaurant servers that will be hustling for their customers tonight are essentially working for free for their employers. The vast majority of their take-home pay comes from customers directly in the form of tips. And if customers aren’t generous at the end of their meal, servers might not even have enough money for the bus trip home from their shift.

If we want to give the millions of tipped workers in America some semblance of economic security, we need to eliminate the subminimum tipped wage and ensure they can earn a fair wage with tips on top.

Back in 2021, there was momentum to eliminate the subminimum wage with the Raise the Wage Act (which would have also raised the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour). It successfully passed the House, but unfortunately was torpedoed in the Senate thanks to Republican opposition and eight holdouts from the Democratic Caucus: Maggie Hassan (NH), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Jon Tester (MT), Joe Manchin (WV), Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), Chris Coons (DE), Tom Carper (DE), and Angus King (ME).

Why, you may ask, did these Democrats stand in the way of giving tipped workers a much-needed boost? Look no further than the National Restaurant Association – the “other” NRA. Over the last decade, the NRA has spent $38.4 million lobbying on behalf of wealthy restaurant owners to kill campaigns that would increase minimum wages at the state and federal levels. (To make matters worse, many of the funds that they use to fight wage hikes actually come from workers themselves.) They and other business interests succeeded in 2021 in successfully twisting the arms of those eight members of the Senate Democratic Caucus to tank the Raise the Wage Act.

But while the fight against the subminimum tipped wage may be stalled on a national level, some positive developments at the state level give us hope. This past November, Washington, DC residents voted to pass Initiative 82, which will phase out the tipped minimum wage by gradually increasing it to the District’s non-tipped minimum wage by 2027. Earlier this month, lawmakers in Connecticut announced their intention to draft a bill that would eliminate their state’s subminimum tipped wage. Scott Dolch, the President and CEO of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, has predictably pitched a fit over the proposal, but that hasn’t deterred lawmakers from pressing forward.

There is also momentum for such legislation in Maryland, especially after the inauguration of Governor Wes Moore, the state’s first Black governor and a champion for racial and economic justice. Governor Moore is centering the fight for a livable minimum wage in his economic agenda, prioritizing indexing the state’s minimum wage to inflation to avoid it losing purchasing power over the years. That’s a great start, but he needs to do more to avoid leaving behind thousands of tipped Maryland workers – he needs to take on the subminimum tipped wage.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: minimum wage hikes are good not only for workers but for businesses and the economy as a whole. Time and again, research shows that when workers are paid more, they spend their earnings more widely in their local economies, which boosts growth. We don’t need to guess about this – there are seven states that have eliminated the tipped minimum wage, and they all have strong restaurant industries. It’s true that restaurants and other businesses with tipped workers might have higher labor expenses if the tipped minimum wage was eliminated, but their revenues will increase by even more. In other words, the long-term benefits of such action surely outweigh any short-lived pain. Besides, any business that can’t “afford” to pay their workers a fair wage shouldn’t be in business in the first place.

If you’re going to a restaurant tonight, please make sure to tip your server well – after all, in most states, they’re relying on your generosity to make ends meet. But don’t let your fight end there. Be sure to call your Senators and Representatives and implore them to get behind the fight to make the subminimum tipped wage a thing of the past in America.

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