Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.


Server Gloria Gregorio wipes down a table at P.J. Whelihan's restaurant and pub in Spring Township on June 25, 2021. (Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Inside the Campaign to Abolish Poverty Wages in 25 States by 2026

"This is the only future for the service sector and the economy overall: wages must go up or there will be no future."

Rebekah Entralgo


As the economy recovers from a global pandemic, many business owners are pointing to labor shortages caused by the "Great Resignation" as a source of frustration.

Tipping became prevalent in the United States 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.

The term refers to the more than 33 million U.S. workers who have quit their jobs since the spring of 2021, largely due to low wages and burnout. The restaurant and service industry is experiencing one of the largest shockwaves to its workforce, adding just 108,000 jobs in January 2022, and remains 900,000 jobs short of where it was prior to the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But restaurant workers and their allies are offering a different perspective: This is not a "Great Resignation," but rather a Great Rejection of low-wage work. 

On Valentine's Day, 2022, One Fair Wage—a national coalition organized around the movement to increase wages for service workers—announced it is embarking on a $25 million campaign to remove the subminimum tipped wage in 25 states by 2026, marking the 250th anniversary of U.S. independence.

"Typically Valentine's Day is the highest-grossing day in the restaurant industry, but this year the restaurant industry is struggling," said Saru Jayamaran, President of One Fair Wage, during a virtual event. "Not because of Covid-19 and the decline of business and sales, but because this is the worst staffing crisis in the history of this industry in the U.S. […] One million workers have left the industry, and of those who remain, 54 percent say they are leaving, and 80 percent say that the only thing that would make them stay or come back is a full, livable wage with tips on top."

According to Jayamaran, the breaking point came when pandemic conditions required restaurant workers to do so much more for so much less—enforcing masks and Covid-19 vaccination requirements on the same people for whom they rely on for tips.

In 43 states and on the federal level, tipped workers are paid as little as $2.13 per hour in direct wages, with tips making up the balance of the federal minimum wage, which remains stagnant at $7.25 per hour. Ending the subminimum wage for tipped workers, recent analysis from the Center for American Progress suggests, would help alleviate poverty, sustainably grow the economy, and advance gender, racial, disability, and economic justice. 

Ending the subminimum wage would also abolish a shameful relic of slavery. Tipping became prevalent in the United States 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. The racial biases that created the practice of tipping are still prevalent in the industry today. 

Although Black workers represent the majority of the tipped service industry, they are also the ones making the least. A survey by One Fair Wage found that prior to the pandemic, Black tipped workers' income, including tips, was already substantially lower than their white counterparts' earnings, with 60 percent of them reporting earning less than $15 per hour, compared to 43 percent of white workers. Since the pandemic, 88 percent of Black tipped workers, compared to just 68 percent of all workers surveyed, have seen their tips plunge by half or more.

Ending the subminimum wage would not just benefit workers, but employers as well. 

"It's not rocket science," said Russell Jackson, a supporter of One Fair Wage and the head chef and owner of Reverence NYC in Harlem. "For us, we pay a living wage, we have a fair tip share, and we think about how we treat our staff. […] What we need is legislation with teeth that will help us to be consistent across the board."

Progress has already been made in Washington, D.C., where organizers recently gathered enough signatures to place an initiative to phase out the tipped wage back on the ballot. Similar legislation is making its way through the state houses in Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts, among others. If they are successful, they will join the seven states that have already eliminated the subminimum wage for tipped workers.

On the federal level, the House passed legislation in 2021 that would eliminate the subminimum wage and boost the federal minimum to $15 by 2025, but that bill has stalled in the Senate.

"It's time for states—and the policymakers who represent them—to follow the lead of millions of workers refusing to work for poverty wages and thousands of independent restaurants raising wages to recruit staff, and permanently raise wages and end subminimum wages once and for all," said Jayaraman. "This is the only future for the service sector and the economy overall: wages must go up or there will be no future."

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Indignation as Michigan Judge Drops Flint Water Charges Against GOP Ex-Gov Snyder

"The people of Flint deserve justice—and it's unacceptable that the people responsible for Flint's water crisis aren't being held accountable," said Food & Water Watch in response to the development.

Brett Wilkins ·

70+ Lawmakers Tell Biden 'You Can and You Must' Provide Rail Workers Paid Sick Leave

"As president, you and your administration have a number of tools at your disposal to make sure rail workers are guaranteed paid sick leave," wrote the lawmakers.

Julia Conley ·

COP15 Biodiversity Summit Highlights 'Deadly' US Attitude Toward the World

"While others play by the rules, the most powerful nation refuses," writes George Monbiot. "If this country were a person, we'd call it a psychopath. As it is not a person, we should call it what it is: a rogue state."

Jessica Corbett ·

Final House Covid Panel Report Exposes 'Reckless' Trump Pandemic Response

The publication accuses top Trump officials of "failed stewardship" and a "persistent pattern of political interference" that undermined the nation's response to a pandemic that has killed more than a million people in the United States.

Brett Wilkins ·

As NYT Staffers Strike, Sanders Calls for 'New Ways to Empower' Workers Battling Industry Giants

"We need to rebuild and protect a diverse and truly independent press so that real journalists and media workers can do the critical jobs that they love, and that a functioning democracy requires," said the Vermont progressive.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo