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Here's a tip ...

By Megan Crepeau, @crepeau

RedEye

4:18 PM CDT, July 18, 2014

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In the endless debate over the minimum wage, one subset of low-wage workers can get lost in the shuffle: those who rely on tips. In Illinois, tipped employees legally can be paid $4.95 an hour, rather than the $8.25 non-tipped minimum wage.

A report from Mayor Emanuel's minimum wage working group recommended raising Chicago's minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2018. The tipped wage would increase to $5.95 over two years, and then adjusted for inflation after that.

That kind of incremental change is not enough, according to Britton Loftin, national policy coordinator at activist group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. His organization advocates for eliminating a lower tipped wage altogether. RedEye spoke with him about that objective; this conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me about the ROC's campaign regarding tipped wages.

The tipped minimum wage is this archaic policy, right? What other industry do you know of where we say the customer is directly, morally, ethically obligated to pay what I don't pay you? I don't know anybody that does that. In the restaurant industry, it's legal. This campaign is about fairness. It's about what's right. It's about correcting a historical wrong.

To be clear, you are calling for the abolition of tipped wages altogether. Is that correct?

Abolish it, eliminate it, bury it. Because it's wrong, right? Over two-thirds of restaurant [servers] are women. That means because we have—even in the city of Chicago, even in the state of Illinois—enacted into law pay discrimination by saying, "People who wait tables … you can be paid a sub-minimum wage." If two-thirds of restaurant workers are women, we're saying, "Hey, we can pay women less, and it's OK."

You have called the tipped wage unfair. Why is that?

You and I directly contribute a subsidy to restaurants by tips that we pay employees. The other subsidies the restaurants get that enable their employees to be paid low, low, low wages are public assistance. One thing we could do to get people off food stamps and off public assistance is to raise the minimum wage. Tips are still unpredictable, still dependent upon that person at the table. Tips are still dependent on currying favor with that customer. With a woman, it can be completely dependent on did you give him your number? Did you smile at him? That can be a difficult [thing] to navigate. Tips can be based on somebody's culture, religion, their attitude. It can be dependent on whether or not they like you. You can't count on tips.

Most minimum wage proposals, including the report from the mayor's minimum wage working group, include a raise in the tipped minimum wage, while keeping it lower than the non-tipped wage. Why is that not sufficient?

The one that the commission recommended? It's not sufficient. It only goes up a dollar above the state, right? You and I both know the rent's too damn high in Chicago. Tips plus this $5 base wage doesn't mean the person can afford a decent place to stay. The majority of the people are working women. So, what if they have kids? You're living off tips. What kind of way is that to live? No one wants to live off tips. They get that check, it gets eaten up by taxes and they're forced to fend for themselves off their tips.

Abolishing the tipped minimum wage would eat into a business' overhead in a more dramatic way, since the raise is proportionally larger. What effect would abolishing tipped minimum wage have on those businesses?

[In] the pieces of legislation that have been proposed, the phase-in period isn't immediate. It's not like overnight they're required to pay double what they're paying. They're going to raise their menu prices either way it goes. And the majority of Americans say, "Hey, we support raising the minimum wage even if it costs us to pay the minimum wage."

One common point made by people who oppose raising the minimum wage is that these jobs are meant to be entry-level positions. Isn't that the case for tipped workers?

No, the majority of tipped workers are 28, 30-something years old. The average age–more females than males of course–[is] 20s, late 20s, early 30s. They're not teenagers. There are people out there working their way through college, but don't they deserve a raise? The political chip on the table is always the tipped minimum wage.