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Future Hindsight is a weekly podcastthat takes big ideas in civic life and democracy and turns them into action items for everyday citizens.

Nov 25, 2021

The Legacy of the Subminimum Wage

The devaluation of Black lives and women's work is at the heart of the subminimum wage. Until the 1850s, restaurant workers were white men who were unionized and were tipped on top of a living wage. But business owners started hiring women and black people for free, making them rely on tips to make their living. This means that the customer—instead of the employer—is responsible for paying the worker. A century and a half later, the subminimum wage has increased to only $2.13.

Tipped Work in the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed how precarious tipped work is. Full time tipped workers, such as in bars or restaurants, often did not qualify for unemployment benefits because their tips were never reported, and it made them look ineligible for not having worked enough hours or earned enough pay. We have an opportunity to get rid of the subminimum wage by advocating for the Raise the Wage Act, supporting restaurants that pay their workers a livable wage, and demanding the same from businesses that don’t.

Who Gets Paid Subminimum Wages?

The restaurant industry makes up a big piece of the work force, but it’s not alone. Nail salon workers, car wash workers, parking attendants, sky caps at airports all work for tips. Subminimum wage laws also take advantage of a subset of people who are deemed ineligible for a proper minimum wage. Incarcerated workers are often paid even below the subminimum wage per hour; teenage workers produce the same work as adults but get paid less; and people with disabilities also perform the same as other workers but do not get paid the same amount.


Saru Jayaraman is the President of One Fair Wage and Director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley. Saru has spent the last 20 years organizing and advocating for raising wages and working conditions for restaurant and other service workers. She is a graduate of Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She was listed in CNN’s “Top 10 Visionary Women” and recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House in 2014, a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2015, and the San Francisco Chronicle ‘Visionary of the Year’ in 2019.

Saru has written several books, including Behind the Kitchen Door (Cornell University Press, 2013), a national bestseller, Bite Back: People Taking on Corporate Food and Winning (UC Press, 2020), and most recently One Fair Wage: Ending Sub Minimum Pay in America (The New Press, 2021).

You can learn more at

You can follow Saru on Twitter at @SaruJayaraman