Servers in Wisconsin’s restaurants shouldn’t have to depend on the goodwill of strangers to make a living. Their employers should be required to pay them a decent wage.
In Wisconsin the minimum wage for servers who are at least 20 years old is $2.23 an hour.
Last week, Senator Chris Larson and State Representative Francesca Hong addressed this injustice by introducing legislation to end tipped minimum wage (LRB-2337) in Wisconsin. This exciting news follows the visionary Economic Justice Bill of Rights unveiled by Representatives Hong and Kristina Shelton earlier this month.
The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is set at an abysmal $2.13. (Wisconsin lets restaurants pay servers $2.13 an hour who are under 20 and who haven’t worked 90 days yet.) Sixteen states have no minimum wage for tipped workers that is higher than $2.13, whereas seven states required tipped workers to be paid at least the federal minimum wage for other workers, which has been frozen at $7.25 since 2009. The rest of the states pay somewhere in between, and Wisconsin’s $2.23 an hour is near the bottom of this pack.
It’s no surprise, then, that tipped workers have a hard time making ends meet: In Wisconsin 46% of servers rely on public benefits, and 12.6% live in poverty according to the EPI.
The pandemic only made matters worse. The largest percentage of all jobs lost was a whopping 60% in the service industry. According to a new Harris Poll, 19% of Americans say they tip less than they did before the pandemic. With customers doing mostly carry-out orders rather than dining in, tips have shriveled, yet servers still have to continue to prepare, plate, and package our orders to-go.
In the memo attached to this legislation, Rep Hong, herself a restaurant owner, shared: “Every Wisconsinite deserves a high standard of living. Even before Covid-19, many in our community struggled to access basic necessities and found themselves living from meager paycheck to paycheck. The pandemic has only laid bare the holes in our economic and social fabric that have been perpetrated by a lack of humane and progressive policy.”
Tipping has a nasty history. Saru Jayaraman’s book, “Forked: A New Standard for American Dining,” revealed that tipping originated in Europe among aristocrats to show favor to particular servants. And it has its roots in racism, as well, as she told The Washington Post: “The restaurant industry, which was hiring newly freed slaves as tipped workers, really wanted the right to hire these workers but pay them next to nothing. So they put forth this idea that they were valueless and really shouldn’t have to be paid by their employers. They essentially made the argument that newly freed slaves should get a zero dollar wage.”
It’s about time Wisconsin legislators ditched this racist and outdated method of underpayment.