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In 1991, the federal minimum wage was $4.25 an hour. In that same year, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers -- which, according to the U.S Department of Labor's definition, is anyone who makes over $30 in tips per month -- was $2.13 an hour. On a purely sniff test level, it makes sense. Someone who's making a portion of their monthly take-home in tips may not need to be protected from opportunistic employers as much as those whose only income is from checks. But let's fast forward ahead and see what we have now.
In 2013, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. At the exact same time, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is ... that same $2.13 an hour from 1991.
Now, this isn't the case in California. States are allowed to raise their own minimum wage above the federal level as they see fit, and California has done the double-plus-good service of not only raising the minimum wage to $8.00 an hour, but also getting rid of the distinction between tipped and non-tipped workers. (That's right, servers make minimum wage here. That doesn't mean you get to stop tipping, gramps.) But that's not the way it is around the rest of the country.
Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming all remain at that 22-year-old $2.13-an-hour-minimum wage for those earning part of their income in tips. An additional 21 states have raised the minimum wage for tipped workers ever so slightly, but are still below $5.52 an hour, the "federal poverty wage level" for a household of one. Meaning, if you take a road trip, when you look into the eyes of your server, odds are you're looking at someone who needs tips to make up the difference.
(An important aside: While I said "server" in the previous paragraph, according to the headline of the previously-linked Bloomberg report, it's just "waitresses" who are stuck at $2.13 an hour, a bit of unnecessary gender specificity that certainly goes to show how much we still have to go in the realm of equality. Okay, back to the topic at hand!)
Think about that, again: $2.13 an hour.
Thankfully, there seems to be some help on the way. Back in February, President Obama unveiled a plan to raise all minimum wages, both tipped and non-tipped, to $9 an hour. A bit more drastic, and therefore a bit more of a Hail Mary pass in the Republican-controlled House, is a bill put forth by Rep. George Miller from California and Sen. Tom Harkin from Iowa that attempts to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers to the actual minimum wage, "first moving it to $3 and then to 70 percent of the full wage through annual 95-cent increases." Ultimately, the federal minimum wage would be raised to $10.10 by 2015.
As you'd expect, not everyone is happy with this turn of events. One entity specifically trying to stop the legislation is the powerful National Restaurant Association. They were originally responsible for de-tethering the minimum wage for tipped workers and non-tipped workers in the first place, and have been the key folks keeping it from raising one single cent over the past two-plus decades. Their reasoning this time out: "If the base is increased, restaurants might not be able to maintain jobs and sustain hiring." To which my snarky response is: your scare tactics are not working.
In the meantime, as the fight continues between legislators wanting to institute an actual living minimum wage and legislators backed by very rich chain restaurant executives who don't want to pay their employees, what do we, as consumers, do?
As Saru Jayaraman, author of "Behind the Kitchen Door," pointed out a few months back, the solution isn't to simply tip more extravagantly. "What we're asking of people is please don't just tip better. Tipping better is great, but it cannot be the only thing that we do to change this industry because we need this industry to change systematically, not just tipping one worker better," she says.
Instead, it's important to let employers know that you care about what their workers are making. Speak to the owners, spread the word through review services like Yelp, check out websites like The Welcome Table to obtain more information, and simply spread the word. It's important to realize that restaurant owners are in the business of making customers happy. And if that happiness is dependent on what their employees are earning, things will change.