It’s Way Past Time to Raise the Federal Minimum Wage

In August, for the first time, average pay for restaurant and supermarket workers climbed above $15 per hour. For years, the nation’s lowest-paid workers had fought to earn at least that much. Now, as the Washington Post reported, the $15 hourly wage has effectively become the new baseline.

While this is welcome news, it doesn’t address the fact that most restaurant owners continue to force workers to rely on tips to earn anywhere near $15 per hour. The sub-minimum wage of $2.13 per hour for restaurant workers leaves them particularly at risk of not getting paid fairly. And because the restaurant industry relies disproportionately on women and workers of color, it’s those communities that bear the cost for Congress’ repeated failure to raise the minimum wage for all workers.

This is why RFK Compass firmly supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15, up from the $7.25 per hour that hasn’t changed since 2009; and more importantly, eliminating the sub-minimum wage, a practice that has its roots in slavery. Think about your family and your living expenses and ask yourself how much more difficult your life would be if you were only earning that much on a 40-hour workweek (about $290 a week before taxes and healthcare costs). Locking in a federal floor at $15 per hour will ensure that workers’ hard-fought gains won’t disappear once the pandemic eases.

With the onset of the pandemic, workplace health risks, hostility from restaurant patrons, and increased sexual harassment and discrimination have only added to workers’ woes, prompting many to leave the industry altogether. Our partner One Fair Wage, the nationwide campaign for fair wages and working conditions in the service sector, found in a recent survey of over 2,800 food service workers that 53% of workers who were in the restaurant industry said they were planning to look for jobs elsewhere. And 78% said the only thing that would make them stay in the restaurant industry would be a full livable wage with tips on top.

“It’s not adding up anymore. People are saying it costs me more in transportation and childcare to get to work than I get in wages and tips when I get there. It’s not worth it to risk my life and to put up with this kind of crap for a $2 wage and the possibility of tips,” Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, said during a recent virtual summit hosted by The 19th.

The One Fair Wage policy would require all employers—including the restaurant industry—to pay the full minimum wage with fair, non-discriminatory tips on top. RFK Compass supports this effort and has been urging investors to make their voices heard to make sure that companies that depend on low-wage workers don’t stand in the way of this crucial change. In May, we sent a letter to John Miller, CEO of restaurant chain Denny’s, to urge the company to cease lobbying activities that oppose a full minimum wage for tipped employees.

We can’t waste the moment we’re in. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed gross inequities in the nation’s labor markets. Essential workers at restaurants and supermarkets faced some of the biggest risks of the pandemic, but they lacked the fair wages, protections, and resources to help them and their families weather the crisis. It’s way past time for them to make a decent, livable wage.