The Struggle of Waitresses: A Women’s Rights Issue

This year Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation that will move Michigan’s minimum wage to $9.25 an hour. For many people this means a small increase in the amount of money they will have in their pocket. For many others, it represents yet another instance of exclusion from fair pay legislation.

The group of people I am referring to are restaurant servers. The mandatory federal minimum wage for these people is only slightly more than two dollars an hour. In Michigan the rate is only slightly over three dollars an hour.

According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, an organization dedicated to improving wages and working conditions for restaurant employees, 74 percent of this workforce is comprised of women. Their website states that women in this line of work make substandard wages while simultaneously enduring five times the national rate of sexual harassment incidents of women in other fields.

How is it that the wages for these women has remained so low? The National Restaurant Association or the “other NRA” has strongly opposed the raise in server’s minimum wage. The organization has consistently lobbied against the rise in the general minimum wage. They have however compromised, under the condition that the legislation did not include restaurant employees. According to an article by Patrick M. Sheridan for CNN, the restaurant industry “successfully lobbied to freeze the minimum wage for tipped workers in 1996 and 2007 when Congress approved federal minimum wage increases. As a result, the federal tipped minimum wage has remained at $2.13 per hour since 1991.”

The issue of unfair wages for these women has broad implications. The Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor says that “Millions of Women are more likely to live in poverty than men and still face significant barriers to economic security and stability.” At the core of this issue is the pay-gap for jobs traditionally done by women against jobs done traditionally by men and the general pay-gap even for performing the same job.

There are often arguments against raising the minimum wage for servers. For instance, forcing restaurants to pay their employees a livable wage would jeopardize jobs because restaurants wouldn’t be able to afford it. However, Minnesota, Hawaii, Alaska, California, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington all have enacted legislation to require employers to compensate servers with at least minimum wage. The industries in those states did not go under, in fact they still maintain very strong.

This is the same argument used to obstruct general minimum wage legislation. However, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, President Obama and congressional leaders received a letter from more than 600 economists, including 7 Nobel Prize winners who wrote that, "In recent years there have been important developments in the academic literature on the effect of increases in the minimum wage on employment, with the weight of evidence now showing that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market.”

A report released by the White House states that, "Predominantly tipped occupations are twice as likely as other workers to experience poverty, and servers are almost three times as likely to live in poverty,” and that “Today, the tipped minimum wage equals just 29 percent of the full minimum wage, the lowest share since the tipped minimum wage was established in 1966.”

The facts and statistics clearly suggest that to not acknowledge the wage gap for tipped employees is to not acknowledge a serious injustice to American women. American voters and legislators need to work towards addressing this issue because we have been failing to protect the equal rights of women on this issue for too long.