Black History Rebekah Entralgo

It’s Time to End This Relic of Slavery

This Black History Month, we have a chance to end the subminimum tipped wage—and raise wages for workers of every color.
[hans van den berg / CC BY 2.0]

By Rebekah Entralgo / OtherWords

If it’s passed by Congress, President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief proposal would do a lot more than fund relief payments and vaccine rollouts. It would also raise the wage floor for all U.S. workers — and give a particularly long overdue raise to restaurant servers, taxi drivers, manicurists, and other tipped workers.

For Tanya Wallace-Gobern, getting rid of the subminimum wage for tipped workers is a matter of racial justice. “Passing a living wage bill for tipped and non-tipped low-wage workers is essential to reducing inequality,” she said in a recent briefing.

As the executive director of the National Black Worker Center Project, Wallace-Gobern oversees a network of eight centers across the country that aim to build power and transform working conditions for Black workers. The subminimum federal wage for tipped workers, which has been stuck at just $2.13 since 1991, is a clear barrier to their goals.

While employers are technically supposed to make up the difference if workers don’t earn enough in tips to reach the current $7.25 federal minimum, this rule is largely unenforced.

Meanwhile, studies have long found a racial bias in tipping. A survey by One Fair Wage found that prior to the pandemic, 60 percent of Black tipped workers earned less than $15 per hour, compared to 43 percent of white tipped workers. And since the pandemic, 88 percent of them have seen their tips plunge by half or more.

The legislative vehicle for the Biden plan, the Raise the Wage Act, would boost the overall federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025. For tipped workers, it would rise to $4.95 this year and then by $2 per year until it matches the overall $15 minimum in 2026.

The subminimum tipped wage is a shameful relic of slavery. Tipping became prevalent in the United States only after the Civil War, when restaurants and railway companies embraced the practice because it meant they didn’t have to pay wages to recently freed slaves.

That past hangs heavily over many Black workers.

“Let’s face it,” Wallace-Gobern told me, “50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty, Black people in the South still contend with economic hardships, persistent poverty, and the enduring legacy of slavery.”

Wallace-Gobern, who is based in Raleigh, North Carolina, argues that policies designed to empower Black workers will help every other worker, too.

“Black workers are the canaries in the economic coalmine of our country,” Wallace-Gobern said. “When the canary died, that was a signal that the conditions were bad for the miners. That’s the role Black workers play. If you improve their working conditions, that will lift all workers.”

New studies agree with her.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that nearly a third of all Black workers would get a raise under the Raise the Wage Act. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it could also raise wages for 17 million workers overall. Another 10 million workers earning just above $15 could also see an increase.

With the National Black Worker Center Project, Wallace-Gobern is aiming to strengthen the capacity of Black worker centers to win minimum wage increases, build up a cadre of civil rights organizers, and advance a Southern strategy on racial justice and democratic freedoms.

The challenges are many. Particularly in the South, worker advocates are up against anti-union “right to work” laws and “pre-emption” restrictions that block cities from improving labor protections at the local level. But Wallace-Gobern is optimistic about the future.

Young people “are ready to lead if we step aside and give them space,” she remarked. “I welcome the opportunity for them to stand on our shoulders and take us to heights that I and my grandparents could never imagine.”

Rebekah Entralgo

Rebekah Entralgo

Rebekah Entralgo is the managing editor of Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies. This op-ed was adapted from Inequality.org and distributed by OtherWords.org.

8 comments

  1. Dear Ms. Entralgo,
    The $2.13/hr. wage before tips is so outrageous, it’s hard to find words to describe this wage at all.
    Thank you for pointing out that this super low wage started after the Civil War to insure recently released slaves might actually be able to succeed as freed women and men in this country.
    I am an older white man and finally I’m beginning to read the awful history of the cruelty, and barbarity of my forebears from the UK and Europe. Reading major works by Ibram Kendi, Eddie Glaude, and James Baldwin have helped me to better understand American history as part of Black history.
    Restaurant owners have been getting a free ride in their profitability which, you point out, rests on a white supremacy notion that freed slaves should never be paid a living wage. Thank you!

    1. That’s a curious post saying this – which is the direct opposite of what the article said:

      “Thank you for pointing out that this super low wage started after the Civil War to insure recently released slaves might actually be able to succeed as freed women and men in this country.”

      And this, which IS a reasonable paraphrase of what the article said:

      “…rests on a white supremacy notion that freed slaves should never be paid a living wage.”

    2. Here we go with the racism tropes again. Wage slavery did not start after the civil war, it started with capitalism. Do you believe white indentured servants sentenced by British courts for stealing food to survive were not slaves?

      Telling poor white people that they are recipients of white privilege is flat out hate speech. If the poor people of this country ever stop blaming each other and turn on our corporate masters, then we could actually change the system that is killing us all.

      I and my poor white brothers and sisters are more than a bit tired of elites eliteplaining to us how we are recipients of white privilege. This is a class issue, the one subject no one dares broach .

      We need to get rid of all exemptions to the minimum wage, including the farmworkers and seafarers exemptions, which allow for companies to not pay overtime. We need to amend the 13th amendment to outlaw slavery under any conditions. We need an amendment to state the obvious, that corporations, churches, unions, and any “artifical entitied”, are not human beings and are not entitled to human rights.

      We all do better when everyone does better. Blaming and shaming other victims based on their race is racism.

      Afternote:. For those of you who believe my puesdonym is a homage to the orange haired one please reverse the order of the words in said puesdonym to find its true meaning! Kudos to those who did not need this explanation.

  2. Before COVID most tip workers made well over $15 per/hr. A large percentage of tip workers oppose this legislation because for many they will see a pay cut. Not to mention that restaurants hit hard by lock downs, patron limits and out right closures cannot afford to pay their workers more money. Minimum wage increases are always pushed by the mega corporations as a way to push small business out.
    Also if workers can’t make enough in tips to make minimum wage by law employers have to pay them at their states minimum wage.

  3. This would be a great article if Joe Biden hasn’t already killed this part of his “relief” bill. Bernie keeps saying that he can do this through budget reconciliation while Biden has been caught many times saying that it won’t be apart of the final bill and that he wants to go through the normal legislative process which HE KNOWS WILL NEVER HAPPEN.

  4. As much as Americans need and deserve a sensible minimum wage, Bozos like Bezos have made it crucially clear that it’s time to enact a maximum wage as well

  5. Agree with Brian, if your business model does not include paying employees, it is a not a viable model.
    Do away with tipped wage, pay everyone the $15.
    Wealthy restaurant owners always use the argument that the cost would be passed on to the customer. Wake up, we are already paying the difference in 15-20% tips!
    In my city we voted for $15 an hour. The mayor sides with business and ignored the people’s decision.

  6. It gets worse than that. Those masses who have been left jobless, as US job losses long surpassed job gains, are no longer even considered “humans” in this capitalist country. This is why there are no objections to the fact that so many were stripped of their most basic human rights (UN’s UDHR) to food and shelter.

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