Minimum Wage, Minimum Concern

Minimum wage in most states has been rising incrementally for decades. Some states, like California, have even catalyzed this approach. Californian legislators have promised that by 2023, the minimum wage will reach fifteen dollars per hour, a rate higher than any other state.

However, in all states, if you are currently employed in a position that collects tips, you are excluded from receiving the mandated minimum wage. This notion of a “tipped minimum wage” was introduced in 1966. At first, it was 50 percent of the actual minimum wage. For many years, the tipped minimum wage increased in tandem with minimum wage. Under President Clinton, in the 1990s, this trend ceased. While the minimum wage continued to grow,  the tipped minimum remained at a meager $2.13 an hour. Federal law has allowed it to remain at that level.

In recent years, increases in the tipped minimum wage have occurred in states like Connecticut, New York, Arizona, and Hawaii. A few states have chosen to remedy state law, requiring the tipped minimum to equal or nearly equal the actual minimum. Federal labor law allows tipped workers to be paid a lower hourly wage as long as total earnings (wages plus tips) adds up to the minimum wage. If the total tips do not, employers are required to make up the difference.

Regardless of the federal requirements, workers like waiters and bartenders across the country are still just scraping by. Accountability for employers, especially in increasing pay to make up the difference between total income and minimum wage, is virtually non-existent. When diner’s shirk tipping, these employees can’t count on employers to pull their weight. As a result, there are many nights when servers head home having made well below the mandated minimum wage.

Some states have identified this problem and are taking steps to remedy it. Last year, Maine joined eight other states which eliminated tipped minimum wage. All workers in these states will be subject to the same wage floor. An advocacy group called Restaurant Opportunities Centers United launched in 2013 to plead legislators to eliminate the current two-wage system in all states. The success of such efforts remain to be seen, but in the meantime, a large proportion of American workers are going without a living wage.


Anna Graff

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