At a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) on Tuesday, the eight Senate Democrats who are opposed to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vermont) $15 federal minimum wage proposal said that they’d rather still stick to the $11- or $12-per-hour benchmark, and that they didn’t want to phase out the subminimum wage for tipped workers.
Sanders himself had requested that the meeting be held, aides told Politico, in the interest of his continuing fight for the minimum wage proposal that he and many other progressives had hoped to pass as part of the stimulus. The proposal, called the Raise the Wage Act of 2021, would raise the minimum wage over the next four years until it reaches $15 by mid-2025; index it to median wage growth; and phase out the subminimum wage, currently $2.13, for tipped workers. It would also end subminimum wages for workers under 20 and workers with disabilities.
“If you ask me what the most pressing economic problem in this country is today, I would tell you that it is low wages,” Sanders said in a press call on Tuesday. “That is our theory of economics — not to give tax breaks to the rich — put money into the pockets of working people and lower income people.”
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Reports have found that the Raise the Wage Act would lift wages for 21 percent of the U.S. workforce, which economists have found would stimulate the economy in a time of crucial need as the nation deals with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, however, remained staunch in their stances on Tuesday that they would rather have $11 an hour be the benchmark for the federal minimum wage, Politico reports. Sinema even pointed out that if the wage was raised to $11 now, and then indexed to inflation, it could be close to the $15 minimum wage goal by 2024 — even as she continues to defend her vote against the proposal in the stimulus.
Other opponents of the Raise the Wage Act took issue particularly with the elimination of the subminimum wage for tipped workers. Lawmakers like Senators Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) were concerned about placing strain on the restaurant industry during the pandemic. Others like Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) have proposed a compromise of raising the tipped minimum wage to half of the regular minimum wage.
But advocates of getting rid of the tipped minimum wage argue that this is a ripe opportunity to do so as the pandemic has especially hurt tipped workers who were already struggling to get by, further demonstrating the need to phase it out completely. The pandemic has made already precarious incomes for tipped workers into “guesswork,” one restaurant worker told The New Republic last year.
Forcing workers to rely on tips and subminimum wages has created, in some cases, outright hostile conditions for women and people of color. A recent report by One Fair Wage, a group that advocates for the elimination of the subminimum wage for tipped workers, finds that female tipped workers not only make less than their male counterparts, they are also much more likely to be sexually harassed at work than non-tipped workers. Seventy-six percent of female tipped workers report being sexually harassed versus 52 percent of non-tipped workers.
The subminimum wage is also an issue of race. Before the pandemic, Black tipped workers were already tipped less than their white counterparts on average. That disparity only grew worse during the pandemic, a report from One Fair Wage found.
“There is the simple moral issue” regarding the minimum wages in the country, Sanders said on Tuesday. “In the wealthiest country on Earth, people should not be working for starvation wages.” A 2018 Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report found that one in nine full-time workers are paid wages that leave them still in poverty. Researchers at EPI more recently found that the Raise the Wage Act would help lift workers out of poverty, including many tipped workers.
Despite Senators Hassan and Shaheen’s worries, restaurant owners don’t necessarily have to suffer, either — Jaya Saxena writing for Eater points out that restaurants can simply raise their prices in order to be able to pay their workers a fair wage and explain to their customers why they’ve had to do so. “They may balk at higher prices if they go unexplained,” writes Saxena for Eater, “but the pandemic has created a moment in which diners are motivated to support the restaurants they love, and willing to learn exactly how they work.”