“I can hardly believe that because of the power of [the restaurant industry], we’ve kept workers flatlined.” –Congresswoman Donna Edwards

We can’t believe it either. Since 1991, the federal tipped minimum cash wage has been frozen at just $2.13 an hour. In the restaurant industry – in which women make up two-thirds of tipped workers – this low subminimum wage is one of several policies and practices that make it especially difficult for women to support themselves. The challenges facing women in the restaurant industry are illuminated in a new report, aptly named “Tipped Over the Edge: Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry,” which the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) released yesterday at a briefing on Capitol Hill.

Last summer, I had the privilege of interning at ROC-Michigan in Detroit, so I am thrilled to be currently working for an organization that supports the important work ROC-United does. (NWLC is a co-author on the new report.) At ROC-MI, I had the opportunity to participate in organizing efforts in Detroit’s restaurant industry, and I’ve heard firsthand the stories of workers who aren’t paid a living wage, work in unsafe conditions, and don’t have health insurance or benefits. I also had a chance to do research on occupational segregation and inequality in Detroit’s restaurant industry after an initial ROC report illustrated discrimination by employers on the basis of race and gender. I noticed while working at ROC that economic justice for workers and women’s rights issues intersect in a profound way. This connection was further cemented at yesterday’s briefing. As Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC United, pointed out, the low federal minimum wage is a gender justice issue.

Jayaraman drew attention to a fundamental irony in the restaurant industry: many of the people who work hard to serve us our food – the vast majority of them women – can’t even afford to eat. But it doesn’t have to be this way, as one panelist at the briefing, Barbara Sibley, explained; Sibley is a successful restaurant owner whose restaurant is profitable while also paying workers a living wage. Congressman Edwards closed the panel with a call to action, urging guests to help workers who are trying to sustain their families by organizing to pass the WAGES Act (H.R. 631).  

Want to help us take a stand? Write to your Member of Congress about the WAGES Act and tell him or her to support raising the tipped minimum wage. Download the National Diner’s Guide, Consumer Toolkit and Tip Cards—use them every time you eat out to show restaurant workers and managers that you are a consumer who cares about fair pay for workers. You can also get involved in your local ROC chapter or start your own; ROC-United has 8 regional offices around the country.

When you go out for your Valentine’s Day dinner this week, keep in mind the person who is serving you. So many restaurant workers have to work for meager pay while providing us with good service and keeping smiles on their faces. They deserve more than that. As Congresswoman Edwards said in her remarks, “we have the power of our purse that workers may not have.” Use that power and promote fair work practices every time you eat out.