First Person

I’ve Worked for Tips for Most of My Life. It’s Time to Pay Us the Minimum Wage.

Next week, D.C. residents will vote on whether tipped workers should make the minimum wage. The ballot measure, Initiative 77, would gradually raise the current base wage for tipped workers from $3.33 an hour, until it matches the city’s minimum wage in 2026. As far as local ballot initiatives go, this one has been contentious: the city is covered in signs, and our local press has been churning out hot takes for weeks. But people like me — people who have had to survive on tipped minimum wages — have mostly been shut out of the conversation, or too scared of their bosses to speak up.

I’ve worked in the service industry for 18 years, which means I’ve been a server in a restaurant for more of my life than I haven’t. There was the sports bar in Florida where we had to wear Catholic school girl uniforms, the barbecue joint in South Carolina next to the arena, the tiny Irish pub in South Charlotte, and the tiny English pub in South London. There was the café in pre-gentrified Brooklyn where the chef made the fluffiest scrambled eggs I’ve ever had, and the Mediterranean place in Helena, Montana with the teal ceiling and bright red chairs.

Clashing color scheme aside, that Mediterranean restaurant is one of the only places I’ve been able to feel at home. The other servers had worked there for years, and we actually made enough money to live on. I shared an apartment with my sister that overlooked Mount Helena, and we had enough left over after we paid our bills that I could make roast beef at Christmas and throw my sister a surprise party to make up for her third-grade birthday party when no one came.

Montana is one of the eight states that does not have a subminimum wage for tipped positions. In North Carolina, I only made $2.13 an hour, but in Montana I made the state’s minimum: $8.30 an hour, and tips were a bonus. For the first time in my life, I could save money. I could get a drink with friends after a good week, and still be confident I’d be able to pay my rent after a bad one.

After a year of making $2.83 an hour, I had to sell my bed frame, bike, air conditioner, and beloved textbooks

I never even meant to live there. I went out to visit my sister after a car accident left me depressed, rattled, and unsure about my direction in life. I stayed because it gave me time to heal.  By the time I left, nine months later, I was a first-time thousandaire. I had enough money in the bank to start over again in Philly, where I was back in restaurants that paid a subminimum wage. After a year of making $2.83 an hour, I drained my savings and had to sell my bed frame, bike, air conditioner, and beloved textbooks to pay my bills while I moved to D.C.

Now that I’m here, D.C. residents actually have a choice to get rid of the tipped minimum wage.  The debate has been one-sided: Besides the signs, restaurants have pushed their workers to vote against Initiative 77, or to keep their opinions to themselves if they’re voting for it. Meanwhile, my Facebook feed is filled with residents asking if anyone knows what tipped workers actually want, with most of us staying uncomfortably silent.

The truth is, I would not have been able to support myself as a waitress in North Carolina, Florida, or Pennsylvania had it not been for my family’s help. That support is a luxury. Most tipped workers are well into adulthood, past the age that they can expect family to support them. The other servers I know work second and third jobs just to buy the basics, and almost half of us still need to rely on government assistance. Even though federal law says that restaurants have to make up the difference if a worker doesn’t earn the state-wide minimum wage in tips, that math never worked for me. Employee wages are perpetually pilfered by restaurants that feel their base wages, low as they are, are somehow enough.

One well-known restaurateur I worked for, who owns one of the most prominent restaurants in D.C., has a habit of arriving at his boutique restaurants in a chauffeured car, occupying several tables, ordering more than $800 of food and wine, and then leaving without tipping his server. His reason for not tipping was that he paid our wages, which added up to about $8.50 after the three hours of service he demanded. To him, that was enough. For me, it never was.

That restaurant owner thrived by underpaying us. He would still be successful if he paid us a fair wage. And the data shows that’s true across the industry.

Initiative 77 could help us. I’ve seen it first-hand. So, me? I’m voting yes.


First Person

We Can Choose How We Remember Pulse

Pulse Nightclub is not a glamorous downtown Orlando club, if such a thing is even possible. For 14 years it has stood on Orange Avenue, a four-lane road that, like the rest of the state’s infrastructure, is strained from overuse. If it isn’t clogged, you could get from there to Orlando’s real downtown in less than 10 minutes. But it’s always clogged.

The black concrete building sits across the street from a Wendy’s, next door to a window tinting business, and catty-corner to a Radio Shack that is somehow still in business. I’ve driven past it thousands of times because Pulse was always on the way to somewhere else: Publix, I-4, or friends’ houses. When I was young and terrified of my orientation, I had trouble even looking at it. I was afraid someone would see my eyes linger a second too long and my secret wouldn’t be a secret any longer.

It is not a coincidence that the city’s premiere gay club was relegated to its outskirts. If you wanted to go to Pulse, you had to go to Pulse. And people did, from all over Central Florida. Straight people, or people who want to go to a not-queer bar, have the luxury of going downtown knowing that when they arrive there will be a suite of options from which to choose. There are different atmospheres, vibes, and themes. It’s entirely reasonable to arrive downtown and have no idea where you will start, let alone end, the night. Queer people who want to be with other queers don’t have that flexibility. Finding that space required commitment and a clear purpose: Tonight, this is where I want to be. Pulse Nightclub was a destination.

Now it is holy ground. In the immediate hours after the attack, mourners flocked to the dark concrete block building and constructed a memorial to the 49 victims. At the makeshift shrine built of flowers and flags, mourners lit prayer candles and knelt before the chainlink fence and in their lamentations, established the path of a pilgrimage that continues today.

Clubs have always acted as a kind of church for queer folks.

Clubs have always acted as a kind of church for queer folks. They’re a communal space for people who share an innate love for something larger than themselves. We’ve lost these spaces before—usually to the gentrification that comes with the mainstreaming of queerness. But what about this space, this nightclub-turned-sanctum? It’s not filled with cishet women on their bachelorette parties—it’s the home of a stunning act of violence. Instead of losing a place where we felt safe, we have gained a place that reminds us that we never were.

And now, we have to decide how to handle that.

The onePULSE Foundation, a private organization founded by Pulse nightclub owner Barbara Poma, has taken on the responsibility of building an onsite memorial to the attack. After briefly considering selling the club, Poma created the foundation and an accompanying task force comprised of victims’ families, survivors, and community leaders, to collectively decide on a memorial and museum in the coming years. A survey was sent out last fall to gather community opinions, the results of which informed the interim memorial that opened in May. A permanent memorial, also onsite, will open at an undetermined future date.

The survey’s results were disappointing and mostly unsurprising. One of the questions asked respondents, “when you think of this memorial, what do you want to feel?” People rarely want to feel anything but “generally good,” so it’s not a shock that 43 percent of the votes went to the words “love,” “unity,” and “acceptance.” “Loss” garnered only four percent support. “Sadness” got two.

That desire to gloss over the harshness of what happened is reflected in the current memorial. It’s more polished and less personal now: A long wall winds around the club and obscures the building itself. There is a single glass panel through which visitors can see the names of the victims engraved on a dark vertical slab, and at night a light illuminates the holes in the bathroom walls where survivors escaped. There are no permanent pictures of the victims, nothing about their short lives. Instead, there are hundreds of photos of the response to the attack: the handmade mementos, mass gatherings, landmarks lit in the colors of our flag, and a sign with a rainbow outline of the city skyline.

Looking at it, I felt like I was witnessing a theft. It wasn’t much of a memorial to the victims, just a memorial to Orlando itself. That falls right in line with the larger narrative the city has pushed since the attack: We’re “one Orlando” with “one pulse.” That focus on communal grieving erases an essential truth: All of Orlando wasn’t attacked. Forty-nine people—mostly queer, mostly brown—were massacred. And that didn’t just happen, it’s another chapter in the long history of violence against our communities.

LGBT people are more likely to be victims of hate crimes than any other minority group.

Even now, LGBT people are more likely to be victims of hate crimes than any other minority group. And for hundreds of years, the government pursued queer people as criminals. This is not the distant past: Until 2002, it was still illegal in 14 states to have intercourse with a member of the same sex. Until 2014, towns in New Jersey had laws prohibiting dressing as “the incorrect sex” in public, and multiple states are still pursuing legislation policing where people go to the bathroom.

That kind of prolonged abuse doesn’t get erased just because I can receive a marriage certificate at city hall. It lives on today under the current administration—the one that calls people animals and jokes about hanging us all—as the acceptance of LGBTQ+ peoples goes down for the first time since we started measuring it. Hate crimes are up since the current president began his campaign, but my state, Florida, still voted him into office less than five months after the Pulse attack.

This treatment of marginalized groups is too ingrained in our society to attribute solely to Trump. It’s the life expectancy for trans women of color, the rates of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness, and every bullet hole in the walls at Pulse. The memorial and the survey respondents are preaching the importance of love, unity, and acceptance. Do they understand what they are asking us to accept?

I am learning to accept that Pulse does not only belong to our community anymore. But I will not accept that anyone but us owns it. As the space enters its second life as a public memorial, its first life shouldn’t be forgotten. It was a home for a specific group of people, a haven where we could commune with impunity. Queer people built that place as a shrine to their humanity and they were murdered for it. Refusing to center their legacy is also an act of violence.

The interim memorial will stand for the next few years as we collectively decide how we want to honor the victims with this space. The only honor that would amount to anything would be to end violence against marginalized communities. But we have no hope of solving a problem so intrinsic to American society if we refuse to acknowledge that it even exists. Just like the LGBTQ+ community needs space where we can safely be ourselves, society needs dedicated space to publicly reckon with its role in fostering that violence.

I know a perfect place to start.


First Person

Michigan’s Governor Is About to Sign A Bill Kicking Families Like Mine Off Medicaid

For 20 years, I worked as caretaker. Sometimes I was a personal nanny, other times I worked at daycare centers, and most of the time those jobs didn’t come with health insurance. But when I became pregnant with my first child, Medicaid was there to make sure we were both healthy. And when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia after years of chronic pain, Medicaid was there for me then too.

My family does not have a lot. I am raising three kids on less than $45,000 per year, and it’s not easy. But because of Medicaid, we’ve at least had our health care.

Now, the state is threatening to take that away. Any day now, Governor Snyder is expected to sign a bill that would add work requirements to Healthy Michigan, Michigan’s Medicaid expansion program, which helps nearly 700,000 Michiganders. Under the legislation, people who can’t find a job or get enough hours at work would be locked out of receiving health care through Healthy Michigan for a full year.  About 350,000 people, including students, parents, and caretakers, would be affected. And while the bill’s sponsors claim the requirements would exempt people with disabilities, many would be caught in the cross hairs.

I am one of those people. I am unable to work because of my health condition, but because I don’t receive federal disability benefits, I could still lose my health insurance if this bill becomes law. As a result, Michigan’s one-size-fits-all policy will jeopardize the life my family has built.

The lawmakers behind this bill assume that the vast majority of recipients are not working, when reality shows the opposite: 6 in 10 working-age adults who receive Medicaid in Michigan are working, and 3 out of 4 are part of a family with at least one working member.

My ex-husband worked through our entire marriage, and ever since chronic pain drove me from the work force, I’ve been a stay-at-home mom. In the past two decades,  I’ve raised three kids and I’m so thankful for that experience. But this bill would punish every person who makes that choice—and every person who had that choice made for them, like me.

Living from paycheck to paycheck is not easy. But my family has made do with what we have because we know that at the very least, we could see a doctor if we were sick.  Taking away Medicaid not only jeopardizes that sense of security for me and hundreds of thousands of Michiganders—it could end up costing people their lives.



America’s Dairy Farms Are in Crisis and the Farm Bill Won’t Help

When Lorraine Lewandrowski drives from her Herkimer County dairy farm to her law office each day, she notices the changes happening across rural upstate New York. “When I grew up here, we had 30 or 40 farms in our neighborhood,” she says. “We had a local hardware store, machinery dealers, two dentists, two doctors. We had a vibrant rural town. Now we don’t have that.”

Today, she says, roadsides are dotted with “for sale” signs. Farms sit vacant, their owners having relocated to urban areas in search of work. Once-pristine barns have become dilapidated after years of low prices left farmers without money for infrastructure upkeep. The closest city, Utica, is the sixth-most distressed city in the country, with about half of the adults unemployed and more than a quarter of the population living in poverty.

Depressed farm prices are impacting farmers across industries nationwide. Since 2013, farm income has fallen by more than fifty percent, and median farm income for 2018 is projected to be negative (-$1,316, to be exact). But dairy farmers are arguably being hit the hardest, as they face a fourth year of milk prices that are well below the cost of production. The resulting stress has become so pronounced that the Agri-Mark Dairy Cooperative, which manages milk sales for its member farms, sent farmers suicide hotline numbers along with their milk checks earlier this year.

Today, it costs a farmer approximately $22 to produce a hundredweight, or one hundred pounds, of milk. But the market price for milk is significantly less. While the price of milk constantly fluctuates, farmers are currently paid as low as $15 per hundredweight—30 percent less than the cost of production.

The Agri-Mark Dairy Cooperative sent farmers suicide hotline numbers along with their milk checks.

Farmers and organizations are calling on legislators in both the House and the Senate to draft Farm Bill legislation that addresses the current farm crisis. While the U.S. Senate Farm Bill is expected to be introduced as soon as this week, the House version will be brought back to the floor for a second time on June 22, after 30 Republicans joined all 183 Democrats in defeating the bill in May. In a National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) press release that applauded the defeat of the House Bill, board president and fourth generation dairy farmer Jim Goodman said, “This bill missed a key opportunity to fix the ongoing crisis in the dairy sector and the downturn in the farm economy. With the bill’s defeat, Congress can now go back to work to draft a true bipartisan farm bill—one that is supportive of family farmers, rural communities, SNAP recipients, and the environment.”

The release builds on an April letter that the NFFC—along with 50 other organizations—sent to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Congressional leadership of agriculture committees, demanding that attention be paid to the dairy crisis before more farms are lost. “Small, family-run dairy farms play a vital role in the rural economy while providing a safe, affordable food to consumers. If the current cycle of low prices and contracted dairy markets continues, we will see virtually all of these farms go out of business, with serious impacts on the economic and social health of rural America,” they wrote.

The groups proposed setting an immediate floor price of $20 per hundred pounds of milk, an emergency measure that would rescue dairy farmers on the brink of losing their operations. The groups also proposed a shift in dairy policy to ensure a balance between supply and demand, known as “supply management.”

*           *           *

Supply management policies were first implemented after the Great Depression to stabilize the market. The supply of agricultural products was coordinated, and strategic reserves of commodities were stored to supplement American food supply during times of poor yields. If supply began to overburden reserves, farmers were paid by the federal government to take land out of production to avoid flooding the market.

But in the 1970s, agriculture made a swift about-face. Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture during the Nixon Administration, famously took the approach of “get big or get out.” He encouraged farmers to produce as much as they could and dangled the promise of foreign exports for any overages. The new era encouraged farmers to take out loans to lease more land and buy equipment built for larger scale operations. But increased production led to a dip in prices at the same time that the U.S. enacted a grain embargo against the Soviet Union. The dominos began to fall—market prices crashed, interest rates skyrocketed, loans were called in. By the mid-1980s, the Farm Crisis—the biggest farm crash since the Great Depression—was in full swing. As a result, tens of thousands of farms were lost, and many rural communities experienced a forced exodus of its residents.

Some worry that today’s agricultural recession too closely echoes the lead-up to the 1980s Farm Crisis: oversupply and falling crop prices, rising interest rates, family farms rapidly going out of business, and now a looming trade war that could impact over 90 agricultural exports. And as dairy farmers face a crisis that has reached emergency levels, the idea of supply management is being resurrected, appearing on the lips of farmers and experts as an approach worth discussing. It’s not without controversy, of course. Those opposed to it say the policy allows government to unnecessarily interfere in private marketplaces. But supporters say it would steady the volatile dairy market by keeping milk production in relative balance with demand.

NFFC’s Goodman says, “Supply management is a long term fix. If we really wanted to look forward and say, ‘We don’t want this crisis to happen again… what steps can we take to prevent it?’, then supply management would be one of those.”

Many supporters of supply management point to the success of Canada’s dairy program, in which farms own shares in the market and are required to increase or decrease production according to demand. The group Dairy Farmers of Canada maintains that the system provides farmers “a predictable and stable revenue.” In an email, Lewandrowski wrote, “The Canadians seem to be doing very well for the rural economies with their [supply management] program. Drive around Ontario and you see pretty well maintained farms with new equipment. Drive over the border into rural NY, and you see miles of empty farms, barns falling down, and people struggling to live.”

Mike Eby, Board Chairman of the National Dairy Producers Organization and a former 7th generation dairy farmer from Pennsylvania, says it’s necessary to control the amount of milk in the marketplace, but doesn’t believe it should or will come through government intervention. Instead, Eby thinks the solution lives within dairy cooperatives, which currently represent 80 percent of U.S. produced milk, primarily through memberships with farmers.

Eby says, “Either farmers control the amount of milk they produce, or the excess will control the number of farmers that produce it… We look to the farmer and say you need to own this problem as well, because if you can’t own the problem, you can’t own the solution. In order to own the solution, your only hope in doing so is to utilize the cooperative you already own.” Eby and his colleagues say the cooperatives “are in the perfect position to monitor the marketplace and ask their members to respond accordingly” by producing more or less milk based on demand.

*           *           *

While small and mid-sized dairies are going out of business, the number of bigger farms—including those termed mega-farms or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—are growing across industries ranging from hogs to grain, tree nuts, vegetables, eggs, and dairy. And modern agricultural policy is shifting to favor these large producers by favoring anti-regulatory policies and awarding the majority of farm subsidies to the biggest and most lucrative operations. Goodman maintains that Wisconsin’s dairy farmers “have been duped into producing too much milk” through expansion grant programs, laws favoring large dairies, and a commitment by Governor Walker to grow the state’s annual milk production to 30 billion pounds by 2020.

Additionally, as processors get bigger, farms must grow to match the higher demand, or leave the business altogether—a pressure amplified last March, when Wal-Mart announced the construction of their own dairy plant. The announcement resulted in the second-largest dairy company, Dean Foods, abruptly severing contracts with more than 100 dairy farms in eight states. Farmers fear that Wal-Mart’s model will gradually expand across the country, edging small producers out almost entirely.

In January, the USDA reported that the number of licensed dairy farms dropped to 40,000. This represents a 3 percent decline in a single year, and a loss of 17,000 dairy farms—30 percent—over the last decade. But while the number of farms decreased, the number of milk cows and milk production increased. This discrepancy represents the consolidation of the market, a restructuring that has changed the face of agriculture over the last three decades. In a new report, the USDA found that “by 2015, 51 percent of the value of U.S. farm production came from farms with at least $1 million in sales, compared to 31 percent in 1991.”

Goodman says the dairy crisis is hitting the smaller farmers much harder, as larger producers can often afford to weather periods of low prices. “Even if they’re getting paid less per hundred pounds of milk, they can just produce more milk to make up the difference,” he says. “And they’re relying almost entirely on immigrant labor, so they know they can pay a lower wage, which also feeds into things.”

It’s kind of like Hunger Games for farmers.

In an interview with Heritage Radio Network, Lewandrowski said, “I would like to ask the processors: How do they ensure sustainability for their farmers who supply them? Most of the processors pay rock bottom prices, and some of them have the farmers bidding down each other. It’s kind of like Hunger Games for farmers.”

Lewandrowski and her sister, who together operate a 60-cow dairy, use the income from their off-farm jobs to supplement their farm income. Lewandrowski works by day as an attorney, and her sister is a large-animal veterinarian. “I’m lucky I have another way to make money,” she tells me. All around her, neighboring farmers are facing increased stress and tough decisions driven by a market with no rebound in sight. “Just about everyone I know has an off-farm job, or is taking on more debt.”

In her work as an attorney, Lewandrowski is “inundated with farmers.” They need help navigating logging or hunting contracts to make extra money, or selling a piece of land, or getting released from their mortgages. She helps with divorces and estate plans. “I just had one farm liquidate their whole herd,” she says, the surest sign that dairy farmers are facing desperate times.

Frustrated by the lack of support for farmers, Lewandrowski has become a vocal presence on social media. She uses it to amplify the realities facing rural communities and, specifically, the stress being felt among dairy farmers. In April, she tweeted to her 25,000 followers:

“Went to Walmart late at night. Kid at cash register told me he’s a dairy farmer, works the night shift to make $.”

“I hang onto happier days ahead. A farmer neighbor collapsed from stress today. We all went over to do the chores.”

“Feeling very bitter today as every last farmer in my area struggles for their life.”



Yes, Eliminating DC’s Tipped Wage Would Reduce Poverty

This week, polls opened for early voting in Washington, D.C. This season’s campaign has been contentious when it comes to Initiative 77, a ballot measure that would gradually phase out D.C.’s tipped minimum wage, currently $3.33 per hour, and replace it with a unified minimum wage by 2026. The National Restaurant Association has come out hard against it, and signs opposing the measure have appeared in high-end dining establishments across the city.

The trouble is, there isn’t much actual information beyond the signage—and the information being shared isn’t backed by research.

D.C.’s overall minimum wage is $12.50 per hour, and will increase to $15 by 2020. By law, employers have to ensure that tipped workers make that amount as well—by combining the base wage of $3.33 with their tips—and if workers’ wages are too low, employers are required to supplement them. In practice, employers often fail to do this. Research by the Economic Policy Institute found that recent Department of Labor investigations of close to 9,000 restaurants resulted in workers receiving nearly $5.5 million in back pay because of tipped wage violations.

Low wages have left many tipped workers struggling to make ends meet. Roughly 1 in 4 D.C. bartenders, servers, manicurists and pedicurists, and shampooers made $11.71 per hour or less in 2017*—well below a living wage in the district. D.C.’s tipped workers are also nearly twice as likely to live in poverty compared to the city’s overall workforce.

The concerns with the tipped wage go beyond just money—the power dynamics of the tipping system allow discrimination and inequality to flourish. One study showed that black servers receive tips that average 15 percent to 25 percent less than white servers, and in D.C., tipped female workers are twice as likely as tipped male workers to live in poverty. It also paves the way for sexual harassment: 1 in 7 sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are in the accommodation and food service industry.

D.C.’s tipped workers are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty

In contrast, research shows that the eight states without a tipped minimum wage have higher average earnings and lower poverty rates among tipped workers, without hurting their employment rates. Specifically, in equal treatment states, tipped workers’ median earnings are 14 percent higher and the growth of restaurants and restaurant employment is more robust compared with states that use the federal minimum tipped wage of $2.13 per hour. Research also suggests that abolishing the tipped minimum wage may be particularly advantageous for women, as the average wage gap for women tipped workers in equal treatment states is one-third smaller than the wage gap for women tipped workers in states that maintain the federal tipped minimum wage.

While the evidence is clear on the positive impacts for D.C.’s lower-wage tipped workers, the District’s high-end restaurant and bar scene, with its higher-paid workforce, has been the center of attention during much of the debate, with figures ranging from Mayor Muriel Bowser to Chef José Andrés voicing concerns that the unified minimum wage will lead to higher prices and lower pay.

It’s tough to envision that high-end establishments’ well-off clientele, wine-and-dine lobbyists, and company-credit-card-wielding business travelers will suddenly become highly price-sensitive if the cost of a meal rises slightly. And any increase would likely be relatively small: Labor costs only account for an average of 30 percent of restaurant operating costs, and businesses absorb higher minimum wages through reductions in costly turnover and increases in productivity. It’s also unlikely diners would compensate for higher prices by offering a smaller gratuity: data on tipping show that tipping behavior in equal treatment states is virtually indistinguishable from tipping behavior in states that have different minimum wages for tipped workers.

What’s more, this focus on D.C.’s high-end establishments misses the bigger picture. Not only is the district home to many restaurant workers who struggle to make ends meet—even after tips—but one-fifth of D.C.’s tipped workers aren’t in the restaurant industry at all. Many valets and manicurists, for example, don’t earn 20 percent on top of an expensive meal, but the Department of Labor allows their employers to pay them D.C.’s $3.33 per hour base wage as long as they “customarily and regularly” receive $30 or more per month in tips.

Initiative 77—which 70 percent of voters support—would reduce poverty and increase economic security among tipped workers in the district, as well as better protect them against discrimination, wage theft, and sexual harassment. The effects would be particularly powerful for women and people of color. Chipping in a little more for craft cocktails and small plates at happy hour seems like a small price to pay.

* Note: At the time these data were collected, the minimum wage in Washington, D.C. was $11.50 per hour.