Move to Raise Pay of Tipped Workers Gains Momentum

2/27/2013, 11:12 a.m.

Could this be the year that restaurant workers who mainly rely on tips for their income get a raise?

Several congressional leaders hope so and are pushing for Congress to put more money in the pockets of restaurant workers whose hourly pay rate is supplemented by tips.

U.S. Representative Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) is reintroducing - for the third consecutive time - the Working for Adequate Gains for Employment Services (WAGES) Act, legislation that would increase the hourly wage of workers such as waiters and waitresses.

The act would raise the minimum wage of tipped employees from the current $2.13 per hour to $3.75 per hour three months after enactment. It then raises that minimum wage to $5 per hour one year after enactment, and two years after that it hikes it a bit more, however it is capped at no more than $5.50 an hour.

"President Obama rightly used the State of the Union to call for an increase in the minimum wage," said Edwards of the president's interest in raising the overall minimum hourly wage. "The minimum wage should be tied to inflation - not just cost-of-living - and include tipped wages."

The tipped minimum wage - as it is called - has remained frozen at $2.13 per hour since 1991.

The Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers of a tipped employee to pay $2.13 an hour in direct wages if that amount plus the tips received equals at least the federal minimum wage.

On Valentine's Day, the congresswoman was joined on Capitol Hill by 100 restaurant workers who met with members of Congress urging them to support the raise. Almost 100 Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) members from 23 states visited more than 30 congressional offices, including legislators from both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) joined the workers and their supporters outside in Senate Park for a rally on the same day.

"Congress has a responsibility to do right by working families," said DeLauro. "It is long past time to increase the minimum wage, including the tipped minimum wage, and ensure that restaurant workers, and all workers, can take a paid day off if they or a loved one is sick. Right now 57 million Americans cannot take time off work when they are sick, or when they need to care for an ailing relative. To protect the public health, to boost the economy, to help employees balance work and family - we need to get these done."

Edwards has garnered growing support for the WAGES Act each year, according to a spokesman for the congresswoman.

"To truly address poverty in this country, we need our political leaders to remember the hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers who help feed America," said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of ROC United.

After the gathering on the Hill, workers with ROC United marched to The Capital Grille, a Darden-owned restaurant, to deliver nearly 200,000 petitions gathered by ROC United, ColorOfChange, SumOfUs and CREDO Action. They called on Darden, a company that owns and operates more than 2,000 restaurants nationwide including Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse, to improve conditions for workers, ensure a livable wage and guarantee paid sick days for the company's 180,000 employees.

Several local residents said they support raising the minimum wage for restaurant workers.

Joann Tucker of Fairmount Heights said she was in favor of the raise.

"They work really hard," said Tucker of restaurant workers. "That's really hard work."

Sean Wilson of Cedar Heights said he could see two sides of the issue.

"I think it's a great opportunity to raise their pay," said Wilson. "Hopefully it won't hurt the businesses."