Our Voices

‘This is the moment’: Why ending subminimum wage will help protect the dignity of workers

Allen, a restaurant worker in Brooklyn, dreams of a day he can earn a stable wage and work in an industry no longer rife with sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination by customers and fellow employees, he told nearly 300 attendees at the Robert F. Kennedy Compass Investors Summer Conference.

That’s a goal more than 160 years in the making, One Fair Wage founder Saru Jayaraman explained to attendees gathered on the Kennedy Compound at the conclusion of the conference’s first full day. Jayaraman also is director of the Food Research Center at University of California, Berkeley.

Allen and Jayaraman were joined by New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and New York City Comptroller Brad Lander at the panel focused on creating an inclusive and equitable economy for the dignity of workers. The session was moderated by Patrick Temple-West of the Financial Times.

Federal law sets the regular federal minimum wage, currently at $7.25 per hour, as well as the subminimum wage, which allows employers to pay workers who earn tips only $2.13 an hour. According to Berkeley’s Food Research Center, tipped workers in the 43 states with a subminimum wage are at least two times more likely to live in poverty than the general U.S. population.

The restaurant industry is the lowest-paying employer, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Lander referenced Robert F. Kennedy’s work in Appalachia and the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, “lifting up the dignity of work and noting that everyone can thrive.”

Lifting up workers, Lander said, “is grounded in worker organizing. There is a critical role of the government to end the subminimum wage by-laws at the state level. We are not asking investors to substitute what democracy has to do. That said, building an economy where a company invests in workers over time is a good investment strategy, as is training and retaining them.”

The pandemic and the resulting shortage of restaurant workers has brought about a critical moment for the industry, Jayaraman said, noting bills and ballot measures to end the subminimum wage are being advanced in 25 states.

“This is the moment. This is a bottom-line issue,” Jayaraman said. “When you cannot operate at more than 40 percent capacity because you don’t have enough staff, you have to change your practices.”