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Why We Should Eliminate the Tipped Minimum Wage

From the Editor: Everything you missed in food news last week

This post originally appeared on February 29, 2020 in Amanda Kludt’s newsletter “From the Editor,” a roundup of the most vital news and stories in the food world each week. Read the archives and subscribe now.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending a screening of the film Waging Change and speaking on the following panel at the Ford Foundation for Social Justice (note to architecture buffs: the atrium is everything it’s hyped up to be). The film follows organizers (including Jane Fonda and AOC!) fighting to eliminate the sub-minimum wage, also known as the tipped minimum or the “slave wage,” across America, and coming up against the powerful restaurant lobbying group the National Restaurant Association.

I think many casual restaurantgoers don’t realize that tipped workers get a different base pay than everyone else and mostly live off of customer tips. If they do know about the sub-minimum wage, they might not understand all of the inherent problems with it. First, if the worker doesn’t make enough tips in a given week, their bosses aren’t always making up the difference, as required by law. Wage theft is rampant in the restaurant industry, and the onus is on the worker to make sure their bosses are making their paychecks whole.

Just as important: When workers are dependent on their customers to pay their salaries, they are much more vulnerable to abuse, racial discrimination, and sexual harassment from both customers and bosses.

Many diners are complacent about the tipped minimum because they think front-of-house workers are rolling in cash. It’s true for a certain percentage of high earners but not the majority of American servers. Tipped workers rely on food stamps at twice the rate of the general employed population.

Some other interesting things I learned from the film:

  • The National Restaurant Association is “the most organized and powerful employer lobby” in Congress, according to One Fair Wage’s Saru Jayaraman.
  • The restaurant industry is the second-largest private employer in the country, employing 10 percent of the American workforce.
  • The sub-minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13 since 1991.
  • Fight for 15, the movement started by fast-food workers that advocates for a $15 minimum wage, doesn’t include tipped workers.

Slow progess is being made on this issue. Seven states have just one minimum wage (and they are apparently doing well). Chicago is considering eliminating its sub-minimum wage. D.C. constituents voted to eliminate it (but the D.C. Council repealed the initiatve). New York eliminated the tipped minimum... for every sector except the hospitality industry. (Feel free to let Governor Andrew Cuomo know if you don’t agree with this decision.)

Anyway, I know many restaurant owners aren’t on board with this, but you should watch the film. I’m going to try to organize a couple screenings. If you are in New York and have access to a screen, or if you want to screen the film in your city or town, please just let me know. The filmmaker Abby Ginzberg would love to get this out to as many people as possible.

On Eater

The Chignon at D.C.’s Nim Ali
Rey Lopez/Eater DC

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Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the National Restaurant Association is the third-largest lobbying group in America, which is inaccurate based on spending and group size. Instead, in the film One Fair Wage’s Saru Jayaraman calls it the most powerful and organized employer lobby in Congress. How “powerful” an organization is is somewhat subjective. ROC United’s 2017 report on the “Other NRA,” can be found here, and its 2014 report on the NRA and its most influential members can be found here. Read more about how and where they spend their money on Open Secrets.

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