Wage increase needed
While we are easily distracted by suggestive and irrelevant tidbits of “news,” the Democratic-controlled House quietly re-introduced “Raise the Wage Act of 2021.” Inside the bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 (by 2025) for 35 million people — many “essential workers” — is a key provision that would phase out the longstanding subminimum wage by 2027.
In 1966, an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act established a “subminimum wage” for service workers who depended on “tips.” For the next five decades, as the US economy’s service sector expanded, polarizing gridlock descended on Congress, and many more Americans became stuck at “subminimum” wage levels.
These wages, unmoved for years, help explain the 12 million Americans who work full-time and yet live below the poverty line.
Enforced subminimum wages, however, is not the sole outcome of half a century of public policy that has turned against working people and their families. The “tips” that justified the setting of a subminimum wage is leftover from the post-Civil War era. Late 19th Century tips enabled employers of menial service occupations to pay their employees, freed slaves, exactly zero in wages. For 80 more years the guaranteed wage for tipped workers would stay at $0 an hour.
A subminimum wage tied to tipping has long served to tamp down the aspirations of working people. Only seven States have enacted “One Fair Wage:” full minimum wage with tips on top. Ohio is not one of them. Ours is a subminimum wage at $4.40.
Tipping, once thought an incentive for better service, in practice, sets a trap for on-the-job sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Research shows the women restaurant workers from states using subminimum wages are twice as likely to suffer sexual harassment from customers than those women service employees from the “One Fair Wage” states. Black women who are tipped restaurant workers earn $5 less than their white, male counterparts.
The “Raise the Wage Act” is one in an array of provisions in Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that promises to restore dignity to the work of millions of Americans and needed support to their families. The journey to passage through the Senate is perilous. Call Sen. Portman and urge him to work across the aisle to phase out Ohio’s subminimum wage.
In response to the tragedy of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln stated “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.”
The tragic loss of human life from the current pandemic is overwhelming. As a nation, we must address underlying causes to prevent future health crises. Prominent human rights activist and author, Arundhati Roy refers to the “wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years.”
Forty years of deepening inequality is a key factor behind the current tragedy. Inequality accelerated COVID-19 spread, placed untold millions more “at risk” of suffering and death, and eroded our nation’s ability to respond because of an inadequate public health system.
While our economy tripled in size, scarcely any new wealth went to 90% of hardworking Americans More wealth to the top 10% tightened their grip on political power, choking-off public services. The wealthy can buy their education, healthcare, fresh air, safe water, and personal security. Their grip on political power is literally a death grip for many in our nation.
Recently, 33 of the world’s top public health scientists published their findings in The Lancet, the world’s oldest and best-known medical journal, and addressed COVID-19’s national inequality crisis. Pre-pandemic, life-expectancy among middle class whites trended down for the first time in more than a century; a healthcare delivery system increasingly money-driven left 30 million uninsured and millions more under-insured; funding cuts reduced front-line public health workers by 20%; creeping healthcare privatization closed hospitals in rural communities.
Finally, the former administration weakened the pandemic’s social defenses by chipping away at ACA coverage, removing the clean air and water protections, and denying and politicizing public health science.
Yet, Americans have responded as President Lincoln believed they would. Americans are demanding a COVID-19 relief package up to the challenge. Led by President Biden, the new Congress is set to deliver $1.9 trillion in needed aid to small businesses and unemployed workers; the production and distribution of 600 million vaccine shots; badly needed funding for state and local governments; stimulus money to families; support for the overworked and underfunded USPS; aid to higher education; a pension rescue plan; and Medicaid expansion bringing essential healthcare to many more people.
More than “Biden’s Relief Plan,” this is the first step to build back America following 40 years of growing inequality.