Left to right: Janice Fine, Paula Voos, Elaine Zundl,
By Steve Flamisch
For millions of low-wage earners, paying the rent and putting food on the table depends on what their customers scribble at the bottom of the receipt: the tip.
The law permits employers in 43 states to pay restaurant servers, massage therapists, nail salon attendants, and other tipped workers a subminimum wage. In New Jersey, the suggested rate is $2.13 per hour—less than a quarter of the state’s $8.60 minimum wage. Employers are required to make up the difference if tips fall short, but advocates contend many workers are afraid to come forward.
Jane Fonda, the iconic actor, author, and activist, cannot fathom how people live with such uncertainty.
“There’s no way that you can count on a steady income, know what’s coming in, and budget accordingly,” Fonda said. “Being an actor, I tend to try to put myself in the situation of a person that’s facing this problem and I don’t know how more than 13 million people in the United States survive with that kind of stress.”
Fonda spoke on November 15 at a policy breakfast co-sponsored by the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, Restaurant Opportunities Center United, SMLR’s Center for Women and Work, and SMLR’s Center for Innovation in Worker Organization. Rutgers University-Newark hosted the event.
Noting that two-thirds of tipped workers are women, Fonda drew a link to the prevalence of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. In a survey of nearly 700 current and former restaurant workers, 90 percent of women told ROC United and Forward Together that they have been sexually harassed at work.
However, in the seven states that do not allow employers to pay a subminimum wage to tipped workers, sexual harassment claims were cut in half.
“That is a very, very significant statistic to put into your pipe and smoke it,” Fonda said. “It really shows the relationship between sexual harassment and pay equity. When women get paid a fair wage, they’re not treated the same and they won’t put up with it if they’re treated badly.”
Fonda voiced support for two bills before the New Jersey Assembly. Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex, Passaic) proposes gradually raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2023, while Shavonda Sumter (D-Bergen, Passaic) proposes applying the minimum wage to tipped workers.
SMLR’s Center for Women and Work, celebrating its 25th anniversary, studies the impact of pay equity.
“Increases in the minimum wage for all will lead to lead to better outcomes for families,” Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Center for Women and Work, told the audience. “We know that elevating the minimum wage improves child welfare, particularly for young children… [It] can change the trajectory for some of our most vulnerable citizens.”
Paula Voos, an economist and professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at SMLR, argued that raising the minimum wage and including tipped workers would benefit New Jersey’s economy.
“My father, who owned a small bar and restaurant, said it best,” Voos told the advocates. “He said, ‘You know, Paula, when the minimum wage goes up, people buy more beer’… Small business can get enormous numbers of new customers by having a fairer wage and a more equal standard of living in New Jersey.”
Fonda, whose character fought for pay equity and women’s rights in the 1980 film “9 to 5,” is encouraged by the number of women both leading and joining the Fight for $15 and One Fair Wage movements; NJWFA’s Analilia Mejia and ROC United’s Saru Jayaraman spoke at the event. And Fonda draws inspiration from the record number of women elected to Congress in 2018.
“Things impact [women] differently, and so it’s just natural and really important that we are in the front, leading these kinds of fights,” Fonda said. “I think it means that we’re going to win.”
For More on This Story
Click here to watch the full event, courtesy of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.
Click here to watch NJTV’s coverage.
Click here to read TAPinto Newark’s coverage.