Opinion: It’s time for Maryland to raise the wage for all workers — including tipped restaurant workers
By Saru Jayaraman
The writer is the president of One Fair Wage, the director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California Berkeley, and the author of One Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Pay in America.
Gov. Wes Moore’s campaign call to accelerate the $15 minimum wage bill that the Maryland legislature passed in 2019, and ensure ‘no worker is left behind’ is prescient and timely. Maryland in particular and America in general are experiencing a truly historic moment, in which millions of workers are refusing to work for poverty wages and thousands of businesses are raising wages to recruit staff. Raising wages, and including workers who have historically been excluded, is the only real solution to this massive staffing crisis across multiple sectors. The only question now is whether, as part of this important policy discussion, Maryland will help lead the trend to abolish the subminimum wage for tipped workers — or fall behind.
The overwhelming majority of tipped workers in Maryland and nationwide are women, disproportionately women of color and single mothers who largely work in casual restaurants, suffering from three times the poverty rate of other workers and using food stamps at double the rate. Forcing these restaurant workers to rely on tips for their base wages has led to them experiencing the highest rates of sexual harassment in any industry as well as pervasive racial discrimination and inequity.
The pandemic only made things worse. Six million restaurant workers lost their jobs, and a majority reported that they could not obtain unemployment insurance because they were told their subminimum wage was too low to qualify for benefits. When they returned to work in the summer of 2020, they found that tips had gone down and sexual harassment had gone up. Women restaurant workers reported that they were regularly being asked to remove their masks so that customers could judge their looks and their tips on that basis. Worst of all, these workers were asked to enforce COVID protocols on the same customers from whom they had to receive tips to survive, resulting in less tips at best and extreme hostility and even violence at worst. That’s why one million restaurant workers have left the industry since the pandemic started, with Black workers experiencing even worse conditions and leaving in even higher numbers. Millions more workers say they are planning to quit. Of those, an overwhelming 80% say that a full, fair minimum wage with tips on top is what would get them to stay in the restaurant industry.
The staffing crisis is exactly why thousands of restaurants in Maryland and across the country have been raising their wages in order to retain and recruit staff. With so many restaurants now paying “one fair wage,” more states are moving to end the subminimum wage — including Washington, D.C., which this past November voted overwhelmingly to raise tipped workers wages from $5.00 to $16.75 an hour. Maryland’s restaurants are already struggling and risk losing more and more workers to the thriving D.C. restaurant industry if Maryland laws and wages don’t catch up.
The only reason there is a subminimum wage for tipped workers in the United States is because restaurant owners still wanted to access free Black labor after the abolition of slavery, so had the idea that tips should count in wages. These are the roots of the corporate National Restaurant Association, which has successfully preserved a subminimum wage for tipped workers — which today is $2.13 an hour at the federal level and $3.63 in Maryland today. What’s worse, a recent New York Times investigation found that the National Restaurant Association — including its affiliates in Maryland and other states — have been fraudulently using money they charge workers for food safety training and funneling that money toward that anti-worker lobbying.
The good news is that, contrary to the restaurant association’s misinformation, the states that have required a full minimum wage with tips on top for decades have higher restaurant industry sales, higher job growth, higher restaurant growth, and higher rates of tipping. More importantly, also contrary to what the restaurant association claims, restaurant workers overwhelmingly support ending the subminimum wage so that they can be paid a full, fair minimum wage plus keep any tips on top as exactly what they should be, an extra bonus.
Ending the subminimum wage for tipped workers is the right thing to do for Maryland’s restaurant workers and restaurant industry. Maryland must lead on this issue, or the state’s economy risks being left behind.