fresh voices from the front lines of change







2.13. For most people the significance of February 13 is that it’s the day before Valentine’s Day, the day you say, “Uh oh, I forgot to get a gift for Valentine’s Day tomorrow.” But for millions of workers, 2.13 has a different significance: $2.13 is the federally mandated minimum wage for tipped workers. These workers include waiters and waitresses, bartenders and hairdressers – people we need in our lives to allow us to have a better experience.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama called for raising the minimum wage to at least $9 an hour by 2016. For a full-time employee, this would mean that in a year, they would make a little less than $18,600. That is better than what many full-time minimum wage workers are making right now, and would certainly be welcome for anyone that is currently at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. But without explicit federal action, that won’t necessarily improve the incomes of tipped workers: While the federal minimum wage has been lifted multiple times, to the current $7.25, tipped workers have not seen a pay increase in 22 years.

Tipped workers are getting shafted by this deal. In 1991, when the minimum wage was $4.25 an hour, the thought was that tipped workers would get half of that, then make the other half up in tips. If their tips did not bring them up to the standard minimum wage, employers would cover the rest, though this provision has been tough to enforce. The National Employment Law Project found that in 2007, tipped workers were making $8.23 an hour, which, they point out, is below the poverty line. In fact, half of all waiters and waitresses are below the poverty line.

Of course, it does not have to be like this. There have been acts introduced in Congress that would tie the standard minimum wage, and the tipped minimum wage, to the cost of living. For tipped workers, this would mean an hourly wage of $6.85 in five years; then it would be tied to 70 percent of the standard minimum wage. The growing restaurant industry, which took in an estimated $632 billion dollars last year, up more than three percent from the previous year, can afford this hike.

When you go to dinner on Valentine’s Day, then perhaps to a bar after that, remember that the people serving you are most likely only making $2.13 for the hour or so that you are there. It would not be the worst thing in the world to make sure to tip them well – and then tell Congress that they deserve a living wage. Tell Congress to pass a bill along the lines of last year’s Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would have raised the minimum wage to $9.80 an hour over three years and would eventually bring the tipped wage to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.

After all, your servers have been offered the same wage for more than 20 years. How would you feel if you got stiffed like that?

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