During the 2021 fight over a $15 minimum wage, one aspect of wage labor got less attention even though it is perhaps the most pernicious and unjust aspect of the government’s system: the subminimum wage. The practice, in which tipped workers can be paid a $2.13-an-hour base wage, has disproportionately impacted women, especially those of color, and left them vulnerable to harassment. “If there is any kind of [national] commitment to race and gender equity at all,” this has to end, says Saru Jayaraman, president and cofounder of the advocacy group One Fair Wage and arguably the single-most important advocate for eliminating a practice whose legacy is rooted in systemic racism.
Jayaraman, a lawyer and activist who also serves as director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has been fighting on behalf of tipped workers for two decades. Although the One Fair Wage movement started in 2013, it was an offshoot of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, the organization Jayaraman founded after 9/11 to advocate for better wages and working conditions for restaurant workers, fighting against wage theft and discrimination. After years of talking to workers, they found that wages were the top concern for most workers. It was a race to the bottom: Restaurants boasted the lowest-paying jobs despite being one of the largest and fastest-growing industries, in part because of the power wielded by the National Restaurant Association (which has long argued that restaurants can’t afford to increase wages or eliminate the subminimum wage).
What Jayaraman has done with the One Fair Wage movement is effectively turn the elimination of the subminimum wage into a national conversation and reframe the issue in terms of race and gender. One Fair Wage exposed tipped work as the legacy of slavery, which Jayaraman uncovered while researching her 2016 book, Forked. “Tipping originated in feudal Europe as an extra bonus on top of the wage. But after emancipation,” Jayaraman explains, “the restaurant lobby wanted the right to hire Black women and not pay them anything at all and have them live entirely on tips. That was never what tips were intended to be. But slavery in the United States really made them wage replacement.” In the almost 160 years since the end of slavery, tipped workers have gone from no wage to being paid $2.13, and the last time the subminimum wage was increased nationally was 1991. “So we know two generations of women, mothers and daughters, who’ve worked on this wage, and they’re mostly women working in very casual restaurants across America, [like] IHOPs and Denny’s,” she says. “That’s where most workers work; fine dining is a sliver of the economy.”
There have been several seminal moments in the last few years, which have elevated the injustice of this issue. The #MeToo movement, which drew international attention starting in 2017, raised awareness about harassment in the restaurant industry, and Jayaraman even attended the 2018 Golden Globes with Amy Poehler. The House of Representatives passed the Raise the Wage Act in 2019, which laid the groundwork for this year’s proposed federal legislation. The 2019 bill prompted Jayaraman to spin off One Fair Wage from ROC because she felt it was important to include subminimum wage workers outside the restaurant industry, such as gig workers, incarcerated workers, and disabled workers. “We spun off at the moment that we had our biggest victory,” she says. “At that point, we realized that if we really wanted to win all the way, we had to build a broader coalition. We had to fight to end all subminimum wages.” And that was just a few months before the emergence of COVID-19.
The pandemic, of course, has brought greater urgency to the cause, since restaurant staff have been among the most impacted, economically and otherwise. “We started a relief fund for tipped and service workers, and 240,000 workers applied,” Jayaraman says. “We instantly started organizing them to fight for One Fair Wage. We did strikes; we did rallies. We surveyed them. We put out research about their needs and conditions. And it’s really been kind of an apex moment for us, in terms of even the president now understanding why we can’t just raise the minimum wage—we have to eliminate the subminimum wages.”
Some restaurants, mostly independent ones, have also seen the value of eliminating the subminimum wage during this unprecedented time. “Hundreds [of restaurants] switched to One Fair Wage during the pandemic, for multiple reasons,” Jayaraman explains. “Either they saw their workers suffering, not getting unemployment insurance, or really suffering with the horrors of really hostile customers and having to enforce social distancing rules on customers from whom they have to get tips, which was a disaster. Some people changed their mind because of the murder of George Floyd, and they were genuinely moved to want to move away from a legacy of slavery. A lot of people actually couldn’t get their workers to come back to work without paying them a full minimum wage. The pandemic has so forcefully revealed the complete dysfunction of the system—the inequities that the subminimum wage exacerbates.”
The stalled nature of the federal minimum wage legislation is a source of great frustration, and One Fair Wage is keeping up the fight with worker actions and sharing stories of the deleterious impact of the subminimum wage on workers, particularly women and people of color. “This is not controversial. It’s not radical. It is so bipartisan,” Jayaraman says. “The electorate wants to see this happen. It’s only a controversial or scary issue on Capitol Hill, where the echo chamber is hearing from big business and business interests.” She values President Biden making the issue a high-profile one so early in his administration—”all of that is deeply helpful,” she says. But as she adds, “We still need them to deliver.”