Like so many of us, there is nothing I enjoy more than meeting up with some dear friends for a bite to eat, or perhaps taking my two wonderful daughters out for a family dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. But as co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, such experiences are always bittersweet. Because I know that our server — likely a woman, possibly with children at home — will work feverishly to put food on our table, all the while unsure if she’ll be able put food on her own that night.
In all but seven states, tipped workers are paid a separate, lower minimum wage. In Maine, it’s just $3.75 an hour. As a result, they face disproportionate rates of poverty, discrimination and sexual harassment.
In Maine, the fight for One Fair Wage has hit a critical juncture; a referendum to increase the state’s minimum wage will be on the ballot this November, thanks to the efforts of Mainers for Fair Wages. Crucially, the referendum increases wages for all Mainers, increasing and then eliminating the sub-minimum wage once and for all.
If approved, the referendum will increase the minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 in 2017 and then a dollar a year until it reaches $12 in 2020. The sub-minimum wage will be increased from $3.75 to $5 in 2017 and then a dollar a year until it reaches $12 in 2024.
We have never been closer to One Fair Wage in Maine. Let’s seize this opportunity and ensure fair, living wages for all.
The assumption is often that tipped workers are largely young white men earning six figures at fine dining establishments. In reality, the vast majority are women and often mothers, working at casual restaurants such as Denny’s or The Olive Garden. The sub-minimum wage system also perpetuates a gender and racial pay gap that disproportionately impacts black women servers. They lose more than $400,000 during a lifetime, thanks to this discriminatory status quo.
In Maine, the average sub-minimum wage worker makes just $8.72 an hour, including tips. They are twice as likely to live in poverty and three times as likely to use food stamps to feed their families.
If that isn’t bad enough, the tipped minimum wage forces female servers to tolerate sexual harassment from customers, coworkers and managers in order to make a living. Forced to live off tips — and thus, the kindness of strangers — the subminimum wage system puts women tipped workers in a uniquely vulnerable and dangerous position. Although just seven percent of American women work in the restaurant industry, it is responsible for 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims to the EEOC.
The degradation and inequity that comes with the tipped minimum wage should come as no surprise; the practice of tipping in America is rooted in slavery and racism. In post-slavery America, tipping was viewed as a demeaning practice fit only for former slaves, whom business owners resented having to pay in the first place. Nearly two hundred years later, that rationale — that it is acceptable for tipped workers to rely on customers rather than their employers for a living wage — continues to persist, thanks to the lobbying efforts of industry behemoths like the National Restaurant Association (or, as we like to call them, the other NRA). Under their protection, the restaurant industry in Maine and nationwide has gotten away with paying their workers unconscionably low wages for decades. Restaurant workers occupy eight of the 10 lowest-paid occupations reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics; at least five of these are in full-service.
It is about time the public rejects the harmful influence of the other NRA, and end this despicable legacy in Maine once and for all.
To be clear, this is not about the elimination of tipping; it’s about ending a system that forces workers to rely on tips to make ends meet. Tipping should be a bonus, not a base.
The seven states, including California and the entire West Coast, that have already eliminated the sub-minimum wage are watching their restaurant industries flourish; jobs aren’t going away in California and neither are tips. In fact, California recently took a step further, increasing the minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers, to $15 per hour. Maine should follow that lead and send a message to their residents and others nationwide that all work — tipped or untipped — has dignity.
Maine is ready for One Fair Wage.
Saru Jayaraman is the co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Forked, A New Standard for American Dining,” (Oxford University Press, 2016).