It’s Time to Make Sure Nobody is Paid Less Than the Minimum Wage

We need a federal minimum wage that works for all of us.

Ashley Allison and Peter Edelman

Quantina was waiting tables in Washington, D.C., making $2.77 an hour before tips, when the diagnosis came: breast cancer. At 34, Quantina had been working in the service industry on and off for years while taking college classes and planning her own business. Cancer changed everything. Quantina quit serving to undergo chemotherapy. She had to go four months without income and was denied unemployment insurance and disability benefits. With no way to pay rent or cover her car payments, Quantina was evicted and her car was repossessed.

Quantina now lives with her grandmother and she’s one of the advocates who worked on the successful campaign to get voters to support Initiative 77, which prohibits employers from paying tipped workers less than the D.C. minimum wage in Washington, D.C. We learned of Quantina’s story in the course of writing our new report, “Bare Minimum: Why We Need to Raise Wages for America’s Lowest-Paid Families,” which shares the stories of people working for low wages around the country and makes the case for one fair wage for all working people.

Eighty years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt called for a national floor on wages to ensure “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” As we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, a core part of the New Deal, the federal minimum wage falls far short of that goal. The standard federal minimum wage is currently just $7.25 per hour, 27 percent less than the federal minimum wage was worth in 1968.

Under federal law, certain working people can be paid even less by their employers, which is why advocates launched campaigns in D.C., New York, and Michigan to eliminate the tipped minimum wage. Tipped workers like Quantina can be paid as little as $2.13 an hour, as long as tips bring their income up to the minimum wage. Certain working people with disabilities are paid a “subminimum wage,” which means employers who get special permission from the U.S. Department of Labor can pay them according to their “productivity,” which in some cases employers have deemed to be as little as pennies an hour.

People should be paid fairly for the work that they do. That’s the simple message that won in D.C. and it’s a message our federal policymakers need to take seriously. Someone working full-time at the federal minimum wage earns just $14,500 a year, and 20 percent of families with a person paid the federal minimum wage live in poverty. People working for tips are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-tipped working people, and people of color working for tips are even more likely than White people working for tips to live in poverty. And people with disabilities paid the subminimum wage often make so little that it is impossible for them to get by without help from family and government benefits.

The tipped minimum wage also has its roots in our nation’s racist history. Industries where African Americans were a significant share of the work force, such as agriculture and domestic work, were not originally covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Both the low wage floor and its incomplete coverage were concessions to Southern Democrats who insisted, as Texas Democrat Martin Dies stated directly in hearings on the bill, that “you cannot prescribe the same wages for the Black man as the White man.” Despite being a clear vestige of our nation’s discriminatory past, the tipped minimum wage remains.

In our new report, we call for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as quickly as possible through a series of regular steps, and then making sure that it will continue to keep up with costs and living standards. We call for the elimination of the tipped minimum wage and the subminimum wage for certain working people with disabilities. We need a federal minimum wage that works for Quantina other low-wage working people. We need a federal minimum wage that works for all of us.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the law creating the first federal minimum wage in 1938, it was intended to be a floor. But it must be a floor that is strong enough to support working people, not so shaky that we question the very foundation of the home.


Ashley Allison is the executive vice president of campaigns and programs at The Leadership Conference Education Fund and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Peter Edelman is the Carmack Waterhouse professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University and the author of Not a Crime to Be Poor.