Here’s a Tip: One Fair Wage!

By Christopher Cook
Workers rally for a raise in the federal minimum wage. Photo: Christopher Cook/Oxfam America

Tipped workers rally on Capitol Hill to combat poverty, harassment

While 2/13 marks the day before Valentine’s Day, the numbers also reflect the federal minimum tipped wage, which has remained stalled at $2.13 an hour since 1991.

Earlier this month, tipped workers and advocates from around the US packed a congressional hearing room and then rallied on Capitol Hill for "One Fair Wage." There is rising momentum to end the $2.13 subminimum wage for tipped workers, which has disproportionally kept women workers struggling to make ends meet and exposed to harassment.

The actions added more fuel to the effort to pass the Raise the Wage Act of 2019, now moving through Congress, which would create a $15 minimum wage by 2024 while phasing out the subminimum tipped wage.

Many tipped workers are "living in economic anxiety, coming to work homeless, suffering from food insecurity, serving their patrons while going hungry," said Trupti Patel, a bartender and worker advocate with Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) in Washington, D.C. "Some people may say they’re the job creators, but we are the wealth creators." And yet, says Patel, "They tell us all the time, you’re just cheap labor. They say, you’re just cheap labor so you leave when I tell you to."

Organized by ROC United and the National Women’s Law Center, the One Fair Wage actions—backed by prominent politicians such as Representatives Rashida Khalid and Pramila Jayapal, and Senator Amy Klobuchar—brought a national spotlight to the struggles of millions of workers who depend on tips to survive and support their families.

As a recent Oxfam report explains, women are disproportionately impacted by both the minimum and subminimum tipped wage. This "two-tiered wage system has hindered progress for women workers, who make up two-thirds of all tipped workers," the report found. The median wage for tipped workers (including tips) sits at just $10.22 an hour, just 56 percent of the $18.12 median for all workers.

As a result, according to research by ROC and the One Fair Wage campaign, 21 percent of female restaurant servers live in poverty, and restaurant servers are 2.7 times as likely to be in poverty than other workers. These levels of inequality are far lower in "One Fair Wage" cities such as Seattle and San Francisco, where the tipped minimum has been eliminated, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

"We can’t wait anymore" for one fair wage, said restaurant server Evann Zuckerman, who traveled from St. Paul, Minnesota for the actions. "We need this to take care of our families, we need this to pay our bills," added Zuckerman, who works two jobs and is seeking a third just to survive and repay "brutal student loan debt."

As worker testimony and research make clear, tipped work also exacerbates sexual harassment, as servers relying on tips are at risk of being harassed and assaulted on the job. As ROC explains, "the restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the US."

According to the One Fair Wage campaign, eight states have passed a version of "One Fair Wage" to eliminate the subminimum tipped wage—Michigan, Nevada, California, Alaska, Montana, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon. The Economic Policy Institute has found that "tipped workers are better off in one-fair-wage jurisdictions where they receive the regular minimum wage before tips." Indeed, a report by ROC found that in these states, "the poverty rate amongst tipped workers has been reduced by 20 percent and food stamp usage by 21 percent, and sexual harassment has been cut in half."

Ending the tipped wage not only improves workers’ pay but empowers women workers to combat sexual harassment on the job. As Zuckerman explains, "In states like Minnesota, if a customer says something or grabs me, I don’t have to take it," because tipped workers’ pay doesn’t depend entirely on making the customer happy.

In a 2014 survey of 688 restaurant workers, ROC found that 90 percent of female restaurant workers experience sexual harassment, and that "women working in states where they must depend on customers’ tips for the bulk of their income are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment." Tipped workers’ incomes "are dependent upon their interactions with guests," ROC explains. "As a result, women must tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers and managers."

Beyond the statistics, tipped workers we interviewed at the actions on Capitol Hill shared disturbing personal experiences illustrating what it’s like to be a woman relying on tips and customer satisfaction.

Ronice Bryant, a 27-year-old mother who has worked in New York City restaurants since 2011, said she has been propositioned many times by male and female customers offering her money for sexual favors.

In one instance, a man asked, "If I offer you $2000 will you come meet me in the bathroom?" Female servers propositioned by men were often afraid to leave at the end of their shift, fearing the man might be waiting for them.

Zuckerman, too, recalled abusive customers who manipulated her reliance on their tips. "I had a customer who would come in constantly, be very rude, grab me sometimes and talk about how I looked," she recalled. "It was hard to justify saying something when I needed the tips."

Yet, as Zuckerman explained, many servers are in more vulnerable situations than hers. "Even with all the bad things I’ve encountered, I’m one of the lucky ones – I’m white, able-bodied, and I work in a one wage state. If I’m lucky and it’s been this hard, things need to change."

Raise your voice and show your support for raising the federal minimum wage!

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