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Amid Ongoing Push for $15 Wage, Service Workers Challenge Lawmakers to Be a #ServerForAnHour

"Try living on subminimum wages plus tips."

A server clears a table as patrons dine outdoors at Gloria's Cocina Mexicana in Ontario, California on December 5, 2020. (Photo: Watchara Phomicinda/MediaNews Group/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

A server clears a table as patrons dine outdoors at Gloria's Cocina Mexicana in Ontario, California on December 5, 2020. (Photo: Watchara Phomicinda/MediaNews Group/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

In an attempt to garner more congressional support for the Raise the Wage Act—which would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and end the subminimum wage for tipped workers—One Fair Wage challenged lawmakers on Tuesday to "step into the shoes of a tipped worker as a 'Server For An Hour.'"

"On behalf of nearly six million tipped workers and 14 million restaurant workers nationwide who have been devastated by this pandemic, I write with an urgent request," reads the letter (pdf) addressed to members of Congress, which was penned by Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and president of One Fair Wage, a national organization representing service workers throughout the U.S.

"Please spend an hour serving in our shoes—to find out what it's like to do the backbreaking work we do," wrote Jayaraman, who added that the already challenging work must now be done while wearing a mask and "enforcing public health mandates on the very same customers we rely on for our wages because of the federal subminimum wage."

"The majority of restaurant workers and the majority of Americans want Congress to end the subminimum wage," wrote Jayaraman, "yet we've heard that some United States senators don't want to give us the same basic fair wage as all other Americans and want to cut us out of the Raise the Wage Act."

According to Jayaraman, more than 140,000 tipped service workers have already signed petitions demanding "to be paid a full livable wage of $15 an hour with tips on top." She told lawmakers that "you can stand on the side of justice and stand with restaurant workers in this important moment by working alongside us as a 'Server For An Hour.'"

So far, at least two member of Congress—Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—have accepted One Fair Wage's challenge to "be a #ServerForAnHour" in support of the Raise the Wage Act.

By increasing the nation's hourly wage floor to $15 by 2025, the Raise the Wage Act (pdf) would boost the pay of 32 million people—more than one-fifth of the U.S. workforce—and lift 3.7 million people out of poverty

In addition, the legislation would gradually phase out the practice of paying subminimum wages to tipped workers as well as teen workers and workers with disabilities, ensuring that nobody is paid less than the full federal minimum wage.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, 16 states currently use the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 per hour while 26 states and D.C. have a tipped minimum between the federal $2.13 and the regular state minimum wage.

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Only eight states have abolished the subminimum wage for tipped workers—guaranteeing that all employees are paid at least the regular state minimum—but Jayaraman wrote that they "have higher restaurant job growth rates, higher small business growth rates, and the same or higher rates of tipping" compared with the 42 states that pay tipped workers below the minimum wage.

In her letter, Jayaraman wrote that the subminimum wage perpetuates racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and racial and gender pay disparities in the restaurant industry—injustices the group detailed in a report published last week.

The One Fair Wage president also explained how the Covid-19 pandemic "devastated" the industry and "made our jobs even harder":

Six million of us lost our jobs and 60% of tipped workers faced severe challenges accessing unemployment insurance because in most states, we were told our subminimum wage plus tips was too low to qualify for benefits. Millions of us thus had to return to work before we felt safe, and we were asked to do so much more for so much less; we were asked to enforce social distancing and mask rules on the same customers from whom we had to get tips to survive, at a time when tips are already down 50-75% because sales are down. Worst of all, sexual harassment has gone way up during the pandemic, with men regularly asking women servers to remove their masks so they can judge their looks and their tips on that basis. The subminimum wage for tipped workers was a legacy of slavery and source of racial, gender, and economic injustice before the pandemic—now it's a matter of life and death. 

Although a growing number of municipalities and states have raised hourly pay to or beyond $15, workers and advocates have long demanded federal action.

Jayaraman noted that lawmakers who become a "Server For An Hour" would be demonstrating leadership that "could help send a message to your colleagues in Congress that the racist, sexist subminimum wage must go—and should not be a part of any final legislation."

One Fair Wage's campaign comes as Democratic lawmakers are attempting to chart the best path forward for raising the nation's wage floor from its current starvation level.

Earlier this month, 58 senators voted to exclude a $15 minimum wage provision from the coronavirus relief package later passed by Congress.

Although Democratic congressional leaders and President Joe Biden have expressed support for enacting a $15 hourly wage, the White House made clear that Vice President Kamala Harris would not use her authority to override the unelected Senate parliamentarian's advisory opinion that inclusion of a pay increase in the American Rescue Plan violated budget reconciliation rules, making passage of the wage hike with a simple majority impossible. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—who in January reintroduced the Raise the Wage Act alongside Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.)—and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have vowed to raise the nation's wage floor to $15 per hour, a policy that nearly 60% of Americans support, according to recent polling. 

In an analysis published earlier this week, the Institute for Policy Studies found that had the federal minimum wage increased at the same rate as Wall Street employee bonuses between 1985 and 2020, it would be just over $44 per hour. 

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