Columnist Carrie N. Baker: Subminimum wage is a legacy of slavery — Time for one fair wage

Carrie N. Baker

Carrie N. Baker


Published: 02-22-2024 7:01 AM

During the summer after my sophomore year of college, I worked as a waitress in a West Hartford diner. I earned $2.13 an hour plus tips. I had to smile at nasty customers all day long to get the tips I relied on to pay rent for a room at the YWCA in downtown Hartford. I remember returning each evening to my tiny room, dumping coins out of my apron onto my bed and counting them up. Over three decades later, the federal subminimum wage is still $2.13.

In most states, servers in restaurants earn a subminimum wage, meaning their employers are allowed to pay them less than the legal minimum wage based on the assumption they will make up the difference in tips. Employers are required by law to keep track of tips and make up the difference if they fall short of the minimum wage, but research shows this mandate is often ignored.While some states have eliminated the subminimum wage, or raised it above the paltry federal rate, the vast majority of states still allow employers to pay servers less than minimum wage.

Restaurant servers in the United States are approximately 70% female and disproportionately women of color. Young people, disabled workers and incarcerated people in many states also receive subminimum wages.

In the book “Forked: A New Standard for American Dining,” Saru Jayaraman explains that the system of subminimum wages and tipping is a legacy of slavery. After the Civil War, white business owners replaced wages with tipping because they did not want to pay their Black employees.

The first Black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, formed in 1925 in response to the Pullman Company’s policy of requiring porters on trains to work long hours for little pay — meant to be supplemented by tips — and expecting them to pay for their uniforms, meals and sleeping quarters while traveling.

“We need to end legacies of slavery in our economy,” said Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, which works to end subminimum wages in the United States. One Fair Wage has launched the 25 by 250 campaign to raise wages and end subminimum wages in 25 states by the United States’ 250th anniversary in 2026.

Hard-fought campaigns to end the subminimum wage have succeeded in seven states so far, including California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana and Alaska. Advocates also have ended subminimum wages in Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

One Fair Wage is now campaigning to pass subminimum wage laws legislatively in another nine states and by ballot measures in Michigan, Ohio, Arizona and Massachusetts. California has a ballot measure to end the subminimum wage for incarcerated people.

Eliminating the subminimum wage will reduce the sexual harassment that runs rampant in the restaurant industry, says Jayaraman.

“What we know from data is that servers have the highest levels of sexual harassment because they are forced by the wage structure to have to not just tolerate harassment, but actually encourage it in order to get tips. They are asked by managers to dress more sexy, show more cleavage and wear tighter clothing in order to make more tips. And they have to tolerate that because their only income comes from pleasing customers.”

In the seven states that have eliminated the subminimum wage, rates of sexual harassment declined by half. “When a woman gets a full minimum wage from her boss, she’s not as completely dependent on tips, so she can tell a customer who tries to harass her to buzz off,” says Jayaraman.

The subminimum wage harms women of color, in particular, who face a combination of gender and racial biases from customers, which shows up in lower tips.

“Women should never have to rely on tips as their primary source of income to begin with,” said Jayaraman.

Here in Massachusetts, Sen. Patricia D. Jehlen of Somerville, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and Rep. Samantha Montaño of Boston have introduced S.982 and H.1872 to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers. Our local Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa is a co-sponsor of the one fair wage legislation. Hopefully other local legislators will join her soon.

With little movement on the legislation for years, One Fair Wage has collected enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot, which the Massachusetts Restaurant Association is trying to block. In the meantime, advocates are organizing workers, supportive employers and consumers to push the Legislature to pass one fair wage legislation.

Ending the subminimum wage and requiring all employers to pay one fair wage to all their workers will reduce poverty and inequality in the workplace, shrink the gendered and racial wage gaps, and decrease high rates of sexual harassment in service jobs. It’s long past time to end this vestige of slavery.

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine.