Don't leave tipped workers behind [Commentary]

No one who works full time in the wealthiest nation in the world should have to raise his or her family in poverty. Yet that has become the reality for so many workers, especially women, across our country as the minimum wage has failed to keep pace with the cost of living over the last 30 years. The hard truth is that the federal minimum wage is no longer a wage that allows families to make ends meet. This is an issue of gender, economic growth and values. In order to restore real opportunity for millions of Americans, it is time to raise the federal minimum wage.

While it is encouraging that Maryland legislators are working to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, the decision by the House of Delegates (if left to stand) to freeze the tipped minimum wage represents a significant step backward for thousands of workers, particularly women. In Maryland, tipped workers' minimum wages are capped currently at $3.63, or 50 percent of the current regular minimum wage, and women make up nearly two-thirds of all of our state's workers in tipped occupations. Freezing the tipped minimum wage instead of raising it will undermine economic opportunities for, and create an even greater gap between, our lowest-wage workers and low-wage workers. This is unacceptable. No other state has taken such action to freeze their tipped minimum wage. Tipped workers are already vulnerable, as servers are three times as likely as other workers to live in poverty. Maryland should not cave to special industry sector carve outs and leave working women behind in our efforts to promote economic security for all Marylanders.

The low tipped minimum wage results in workers relying on government services to close the gap between their wages and what they need to provide for their families. I hear from many women who work a full-time job but still need food stamps, nutrition assistance, help with their utilities, and public housing assistance to make ends meet. In effect, taxpayers are subsidizing the gap between low wages and what a family needs to live on. Instead, let's just make companies and restaurants to pay fair wages that enable families to use their paycheck to make ends meet.

Raising the tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of $10.10 per hour would mean an increase of $6,880 per year for working families across our country. Research has also found that these raises will not cost Maryland's economy jobs because low-wage workers would use this additional income to purchase goods and services from businesses. The non-partisan Economic Policy Institute found that the original legislation proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, which included an increase in the tipped minimum wage, would add almost $500 million in economic activity and 1,600 new jobs even after increased labor costs and the possibility of small price increases. This makes sense for Maryland's economy.

A robust tipped minimum wage is an essential part of any effort to raise the minimum wage. At the federal level, I have introduced H.R. 650, the WAGES Act, in the last two Congresses, which would increase the tipped minimum wage for the first time in over 20 years. This legislation was added to the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, H.R. 1010, which would increase the minimum wage for all workers. There is no reason why legislators in Maryland should not pursue a similar strategy, and I urge our state lawmakers to support Governor O'Malley's initial proposal by enacting a progressive minimum wage increase, including an increase in the tipped minimum wage. Let's lead the nation by not leaving our tipped workers behind.

Donna F. Edwards, a Democrat from Maryland, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Her email is Donna S. Edwards is the Secretary-Treasurer of the Maryland-DC AFL-CIO.

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