The Common Good

A Valentine's Day Story: $2.13 an Hour

A couple of weeks ago was Valentine’s Day — the second busiest day of the year for restaurants — and many of us celebrated the holiday by going out to eat with our loved one. I was no different. My girlfriend and I enjoyed a great dining experience at a local Italian restaurant in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Our server was very personable and delivered exemplary service. When it came time to pay the bill and tip the waitress, I had a flashback to a social stratification course I took as a sophomore in college. In the course, we read Barbara Ehrenreich’s non-fiction bestseller, Nickel and Dimed, in which Ehrenreich goes undercover as a low-waged worker to experiment living off the wages earned. One of the jobs Ehrenreich worked during her experiment was as a server at a small restaurant. Ehrenreich was unable to make a living wage as a server and was forced to pick up another job. Every time I eat at a restaurant and it is time to pay the bill, I am always reminded of the unfair wages servers earn.

There have been recent talks about increasing the federal minimum wage. However, there is a group of waged workers that is often overlooked in this debate: tipped workers. They are subject to the “tipped minimum wage” — $2.13 an hour. In fact, it has been 22 years since Congress raised the “tipped minimum wage.” According to federal laws, if a waitress or waiter makes more than $30 a month in tips, they can be subject to these wages. Out of the 50 states, 18 of these states pay servers $2.13 an hour, 22 of these states pay servers less than $3.00 an hour, and only seven pay them the federal minimum wage. Due to these unfair wages, it is estimated that servers are three times as likely to live in poverty.

The rationale behind the “tipped minimum wage” law is that servers are able to make up the additional monies in tips. But what about those times when they don’t? There is a “fill-in-the-gap” rule that is supposed to cover the gap, but it is largely ignored. Most servers do not even bother to exercise this rule in fear of being fired from their jobs.

Maybe you are wondering what you can do? Well, you can start by calling your elected officials in Congress and asking them to support legislation that raises the federal minimum wage. Also, you can join organizations such as the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) and their efforts to raise the tipped-minimum wage. More importantly, you can share this information with your family, friends, neighbors, and loved ones.

In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus tells a story of workers who were all paid the same payment for their work. Some of these workers worked longer hours while others did not. Jesus ends the parable in defense of the equal wage rendered to each worker by stating, “those who are last now will be first” Matthew 20:12 (NLT). The next time you are out to eat at a restaurant, keep Jesus’ words in your mind and remember not to wait until next year’s Valentine’s Day to tip your waiter.

Shakei Haynes is Campaigns Assistant at Sojourners. He majored in Political Science at Howard University and is currently a student at Wesley Theological Seminary pursuing his Master of Divinity.

Image: Tip image, Paul Matthew Photography /

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