Could You Live on $2.13 Per Hour -- Even With Tips? That's the Minimum Wage for Waiters

The president's call to raise the general minimum wage will do nothing for tipped workers. Congresswoman Donna Edwards wants to change that.

Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., at a press event in the House Cannon Office Building, makes the case for raising the minimum wage for tipped workers, February 13, 2013.
Photo Credit: A.M. Stan

Could you live on $2.13 per hour, plus tips?

When President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, called for a raise in the federal minimum wage, he won the praise of progressives. But how many know that, even if Congress steps up to make that proposal a reality, it will mean absolutely nothing for waiters and other workers classified as “tipped employees,” workers who last saw a raise in their abysmally low minimum wage some 22 years ago.

The justification for keeping the base pay of these workers so low is that the tips they earn are presumed to make up the difference. But too often they don’t.

Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., aims to change that with new legislation, the WAGES Act, that would raise the federal minimum wage for tipped workers to at least $5.50 per hour within a year of enactment. She and co-sponsor Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the bill this week.

Edwards, herself a former restaurant waiter, joined members of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers, for a press event at a House of Representatives office building the day after the president’s speech to announce the new legislation.

“I know that when I waited tables, I didn’t just do it because I needed some extra change,” Edwards told the gathering. “I did it because I had to pay my rent, I did it because I had to make sure I had food in my refrigerator, I did because I did because I needed transportation to get back and forth to school.”

It was wrong, she said,  “to not know from one night to the next how much I was going to make because I relied on tips...” A green cloth badge pinned to Edwards' shirt read: "$2.13 is not enough."

Saru Jayaraman, ROC’s co-founder and -director, and director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California/Berkeley, offered some background on the history of what is perhaps the most stagnant wage in the U.S.

In 1996, she explained, when Republican former presidential candidate Herman Cain ran the National Restaurant Association, his relentless lobbying succeeded in decoupling the minimum wage for tipped workers from the general minimum wage. Before Cain’s tenure at the restaurant industry’s trade association, Jayaraman said, the wage for tipped workers had traditionally increased when the general minimum wage won a raise. (See Mike Elk’s In These Times report, here.)

Joining Jayaraman and Edwards at the Capitol Hill event were dozens of restaurant workers, some who journeyed from Michigan and Illinois to take part in the event.

Among them was Um Chang, who said he had worked in the restaurant industry as a tipped worker for nine years, the last three-and-a-half in Washington, D.C. It was a rude awakening, he said, when he moved to the District of Columbia from California, where restaurant workers, tipped or not, are guaranteed base pay of $8.00 per hour. In Washington, D.C., by contrast, tipped employees are guaranteed only a base minimum wage of $2.77.

“For the past three-and-a-half years I lived here, I’ve had one paycheck that actually had money on it,” Chang said. “Every other paycheck I’ve gotten had zeros because taxes completely wiped out everything I’d earned.”

This Valentine’s Day, Rep. Edwards noted, the restaurant industry was poised to take in some $70 million on a single day. “That’s a chunk of change,” she said. Perhaps some of that might be shared, she suggested, with the servers, bartenders and bussers who rely for their living on the kindness of strangers.

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Adele M. Stan is a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.