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Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin call out subpar wages for women workers

Wmc News Lily Tomlin Jane Fonda
Tipped workers “simply can’t make the money that they need to make ends meet,” says Fonda; Tomlin and her fellow organizers believe Michigan is fertile ground for change.

Fast food workers put a national movement called the Fight for $15 on the map in November 2012 when they walked out of chain restaurants across New York City to demand higher hourly wages. The highly visible strike was a vital flashpoint in a series of organized actions around the country that continue to this day, winning fair pay for workers in states like New York, Maine, Colorado, and Washington. At first glance, the movement for a $15 minimum wage might seem inclusive of underpaid workers of all stripes. But a crucial group of laborers have been left behind: Those who work for tips.

This week, that neglected subset of workers gained two unexpected allies in actresses Jane Fonda—one of the co-founders of the Women’s Media Center, along with Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem—and Lily Tomlin. Fonda and Tomlin, longtime friends and current “Grace & Frankie” costars, traveled to Michigan to help kick off the One Fair Wage campaign, which aims to end the two-tiered wage system and bring both tipped and non-tipped workers up to $12 an hour over several years. (It’s a goal that’s potentially more reachable that $15.)

Tipped workers “simply can’t make the money that they need to make ends meet,” Fonda said in an interview on Wednesday. And the workers who suffer most, research indicates, are women. 

Fonda and Tomlin, a Detroit native, have been touring Michigan with Saru Jayaraman—the co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), a labor rights organization that advocates on behalf of restaurant workers—raising awareness of One Fair Wage’s ambitions through speaking events, door-to-door canvassing, and fundraising events. Their goal is to put forth a 2018 ballot initiative that would raise the state’s current minimum wage of $8.38 to $12 by 2022, and bring the $3.38 tipped hourly wage into parity by 2024.

Fonda admits that, like many people, she didn’t realize that the movement to raise the minimum wage had largely excluded the plight of tipped workers. Then she met Jayaraman. The exclusion of those who work for tips is largely due to the National Restaurant Association, a powerful industry lobby. The deep pockets of the NRA (“The other NRA,” Fonda jokes) have helped ensure that tipped workers can legally be paid a lower minimum wage than those who don’t make tips.

The NRA contends that if the pay for tipped workers is raised to match the minimum wage, restaurants will be forced to cut benefits and hours for employees, increase prices, and limit hiring. ROC counters by saying that the restaurant industry has experienced above-average employment growth in states that have abolished the subminimum wage, and that restaurant sales have also risen. 

Though federal law requires employers to make up the difference if a worker’s tips don’t add up to minimum wage, that is not the lived reality for many restaurant employees. The NRA, Fonda said, “expects the public to subsidize the wages of restaurant workers, which of course never provides enough financial security.”

ROC also plans to take the Michigan template on the road and try to eliminate the two-tiered wage system in other states. Currently, seven states—Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Minnesota, California, Oregon, and Washington—have abolished the two-tiered system.

While the ballot initiative’s success would help all tipped workers, women restaurant employees would reap the greatest benefits. Eighty percent of tipped workers in Michigan are women; roughly 70 percent are women nationally. The poverty rate of tipped workers is twice that of other workers, a reality that also disproportionately impacts women. More than 30 percent of employees working for tips are parents, and of those who are women, roughly 16 percent are single parents, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Economic Policy Institute. These women are also disproportionately forced to rely on public benefits to subsidize their meager wages.

“This is a legalized form of gender pay inequity, where a mostly female workforce is working for three bucks an hour while everyone else is working for more,” said Jayaraman in an interview. “In a lot of states, like New York, when [wages have] gone up to $15, tipped workers have been left out or even saw their wages decline.

“Fifteen dollars,” said Jayaraman, “hasn’t meant $15 for women.”

On top of the economic challenges faced by women who work for tips, sexual harassment is endemic in the restaurant industry. Because restaurant workers in non-managerial positions are reliant on tips, women workers surveyed by ROC reported feeling the need to accept the harassment rather than lose their jobs. Female restaurant employees also reported being encouraged to wear sexier clothing and flirt with customers, all while tolerating sexual jokes or touching. According to Jayaraman, one out of every two women will work in the restaurant industry at some point. And the normalization of harassment “sets a standard for how women view themselves for the rest of their lives.”

In spite of an uphill battle, Fonda, Jayaraman, and Tomlin believe Michigan is fertile ground for change. Polling and canvassing by ROC prior to this week indicated broad support from voters, including those who don’t often participate in midterm elections. By embedding themselves with local grassroots, worker-led organizations, ROC hopes to reach a broader range of voters.  

“This state has a lot of problems, but it also has a lot of incredible organizing going on under the radar,” Fonda said. “We’re tapping into that energy to try to move a process forward that can change the future of Michigan.”

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