Even if I leave my waitress a 30% tip, her wages are outrageously low

May 1, 2014

Last week at noon I snuck over to a little restaurant near Detroit’s Eastern Market that usually isn't very crowded.

The place isn’t fine dining, but it’s quiet, I like their food, and they left me alone for a romantic hour-long interval with coffee and a bunch of term papers on the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

My server is usually a woman I’ll call Stephanie, who is sweet, efficient and a trifle careworn. I think she is in her mid-40s, I know she has kids, and she has worked there for 18 years. 

My bill was about $9, and I left Stephanie$3, which sounds generous – after all, that’s more than the 15 to 20% they say you are supposed to tip. But afterwards I realized what I gave her was outrageously cheap.

I know the restaurant, and Stephanie is almost certainly being paid the minimum wage of $2.65 an hour. She had no more than three tables while I was there. 

My guess is she made less than $10 to12 for an hour of constantly standing on her feet, waiting on sometimes surly people, and cleaning up their mess.

Nobody, however, seems to give much of a damn about Stephanie, and others in the same line of work. There are efforts to raise the minimum wage for people who don’t get tips, but they don’t seem to be getting anywhere, either.

Yesterday, Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked a vote on raising the national minimum to $10.10 an hour. They said it would hurt the economy and stall the fragile recovery.

Their arguments were familiar to me, because they said the same things in almost the same words in 1938, when Congress established a minimum wage of $0.25 an hour.

Despite the predictions, the economy survived.

Today, the federal minimum is $7.25 an hour. In Michigan, it is $0.15 cents higher. When you allow for inflation, that’s actually much less than it used to be.

When you allow for inflation, that's actually much less than it used to be.

Back in 1968, the minimum was almost $11.00 an hour in today’s money, and the unemployment rate was lower than today.

Currently, there’s also a petition drive to get a proposal on the ballot that would raise Michigan’s minimum wage to $10.10, but we don’t know yet if organizers will get enough signatures.

Polls do tell us most people like the idea.

Republicans don’t, though State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, does want to raise the regular minimum wage to $8.15 an hour.

He would even give my server, Stephanie, an increase of 10 cents. Jones said “This is very good income for somebody typically with just a high school diploma.”

I wouldn’t call less than $17,000 a year a “very good income” for anybody.

But not to worry. They won’t even get that. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, says he’s not interested in raising the minimum wage, period. I don’t know if the minimum wage will be much of an issue in this year’s election campaign.

I do know it should be.    

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.