Congress is preparing to vote on a bill to raise the minimum wage, but there’s been relatively little attention devoted to one of its most critical provisions: eliminating the sub-minimum wage.
The sub-minimum wage applies to workers in tipped professions such as the restaurant industry, and is currently a paltry $2.13 an hour, where it’s been stuck since 1991. Such scant wages leave legions of workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation—particularly sexual harassment.
Though I’m far-removed from it now, I used to work as a waitress in a neighborhood bar, slinging beers and burgers. I worked the Friday night shift in a working-class neighborhood and had the beer on the bar-top by the time my regular customers, covered in construction dust, saddled up to their favorite seats. My wage, plus modest tips, was enough to cover tuition at my local state college, along with expenses like rent.
Like any woman in the service industry, there were times that I faced customers making suggestive comments or engaging in more obvious sexual harassment. My go-to line, said with a smile, was “I am not on the menu.” It usually was enough to diffuse the situation, but sometimes it wasn’t.
I got lucky in those situations—my regular customers would make their disapproval known and that would usually keep the behavior of the harassing customer in check, or a sympathetic manager could take over waiting tables—but I should never have had to be in them in the first place, nor should any woman just trying to do her job.
The sub-minimum wage is what put me there. If you’ve worked for tips, you probably have at least one or two stories of uncomfortable or frightening interactions with customers. You also likely have stories of instances where you stayed silent about them, because you needed those tips to survive.
The sub-minimum wage creates a forever off-balance power dynamic. Waitresses are too often forced to weigh their physical and emotional safety against the need to be cheerful enough to earn a tip. On $2.13 an hour, every single cent counts. If a worker serves a customer that’s in a bad mood and refuses to tip, it can mean the difference between paying rent, buying groceries, or even affording enough gas for the drive home. The decision to speak out against an abusive customer or supervisor in these circumstances often has serious implications.
With the population of tipped workers overwhelmingly made up of women, especially women of color, there’s ample room for harassment and abuse. A mind-boggling 90 percent of women working in the restaurant industry, the single largest industry of tipped-wage work, have experienced sexual harassment from customers, and 68 percent have experienced it from management. Over half reported experiencing sexual harassment on at least a weekly basis.
As the #MeToo movement has shown, sexual harassment happens everywhere, but the sub-minimum wage makes the problem uniquely acute in some workplaces. Tipped-wage workers are more than twice as likely to report sexual harassment compared to workers in the same job who live in states that explicitly bar the sub-minimum wage. Currently, that’s just seven states.
Abolishing the tipped wage certainly won’t fix the problem of widespread harassment overnight, but it will help empower workers to speak up about it and put a stop to it. The Raise the Wage Act, currently set for a House vote before Congress’ August recess this year, would help solve this problem by phasing out the tipped wage in all 50 states and raising the federal minimum to $15 an hour.
Opponents of a single, fair wage like to argue that working for tips motivates workers to provide better service and thus earn more than average, but that myth never pans out in practice. Tipped workers are much more likely to live in poverty than their non-tipped counterparts. In equal treatment states, tipped workers earn 17 percent more per hour than their counterparts in states where their base wage is below the standard.
Even if every tipped worker earned the current federal minimum wage, it still wouldn’t be enough to stop them from living at a subsistence level. At the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a single worker has to maintain two-and-a-half full-time jobs to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. If we allow any sub-minimum wage to be the law of the land, let alone a $2.13 wage, then we’ll still be leaving millions of women vulnerable.
If our lawmakers are serious about stopping the cycle of abuse and exploitation for millions of their constituents, it must start with securing their economic freedom and ensuring that they work in environments that put their dignity and well-being first.
I wouldn’t trade away my time as a waitress, but I am fully aware of the physical, emotional and financial vulnerability that the job entails. Wage suppression makes an already vulnerable situation that much more fraught.
Service industry workers deserve better. They deserve a raise—and a new set of economic conditions that guarantee that they’re never on the menu.