Giving Workers a Good Tip and a Living Wage

Imagine your wages frozen for two decades at $2.13 per hour. No, I am not talking about a Third World sweatshop. The kid who put your groceries in the car, the waitress who served you dinner at your favorite restaurant last week, the guy or girl who vacuumed out your car at the car wash. All these are tipped workers and their wages in the United States have been frozen for 20 years.

Passage of The Wages Act (HR 631) would make progress in closing the gap between tipped workers, many of them young, and all other workers.

A few days ago, amongst the food, fun and festivities of Martin Luther King Day, in Atlanta, I spoke to the celebrants about HR 631. Many were astounded that tipped workers make so little base pay. But many others know the truth all too well. One young man promptly corrected me when I mistakenly said “wages frozen at $2.16.” He said “$2.13, I work at the Waffle House.”

With 13 million workers the restaurant industry employs a huge number of young people. This group of tipped workers has been devastated by stagnant wages and the current economy. Nearly 15 percent of all waiters and waitresses live below the federal poverty level, compared to less than 6 percent of the workforce as a whole.  The impact on people of color is significantly worse. According to the Census Bureau, 22.3 percent of African-American tipped employees and 18 percent of Latino tipped employees live in families below the poverty level

While employers are supposed to make up the difference between tips and the minimum wage, most workers rely on their base wage as their source of steady income. Tips fluctuate based on the economy, season and shift.

Charmaine Davis, the director of the Atlanta Chapter of 9to5, a community organization that supports economic justice in the workplace says, “This legislation would restore the value of the minimum wage for tipped workers at 60 percent of the federal minimum wage.”

Both of my sons have worked tipped jobs in the food service industry at various times during their college and high school years as have I.  

I remember getting fired as a barmaid when the proprietor found out I was underage. Meeting new people and never knowing what the customers would be like from day to day was an aspect me and my youngest son enjoyed; however we all agreed the pay was pitiful. Our family worked those jobs at some of the most financially challenging times of our lives. For many in the food service industry this is a life-long occupation. Housing, food, utilities, clothing, education, transportation and all the other necessities of life, depend on fluctuating tips and a $2.13 per our job.

If passed, the Wages Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) will:

  • Raise the minimum wage of tipped employees from the current level of $2.13 per hour to $3.75 per hour three months after enactment.
  • Raise the minimum wage of tipped employees to $5.00 per hour one year after its enactment
  • After the second year, restore the tipped minimum wage to its original rate of 70 percent of minimum wage (as enacted during the 1930s) but no less than $5.50 per hour

Prior attempts to raise the hourly rate for restaurant workers have been unsuccessful. The original Wages Act, HB 2570, was introduced in 2009. It died in committee.

Members of Congress have not frozen their own wages. In 1989, Congress passed an amendment allowing for automatic raises, unless they specifically vote to reject a raise for that given year.

As Dr. King said, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.”

Be a drum major for justice, support the Wages Act.


In the interest of full disclosure I volunteered with 9to5 to collect petition signatures for the passage of HR 631 at the 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King National Day of Service in Atlanta.