Massachusetts voters could be taking on labor laws in some high-profile ballot questions this November. Restaurant owners and restaurant workers are especially invested in a ballot measure that would require a full minimum wage — with tips on top — for tipped workers.

State law requires employers to pay their workers a minimum of $15 per hour, with a caveat that workers who earn tips will instead earn $6.75 — though that’s higher than the federal standard of just $2.13. Should this ballot question pass, Massachusetts could join seven other states in requiring employers to pay all employees minimum wage, tipped or not.

Proponents say service workers are struggling to survive with their current pay, which they say often doesn’t add up to minimum wage, even when including tips. Opponents say it would be detrimental to the restaurant industry and potentially force companies out of business. 

Saru Jayaraman, head of One Fair Wage, the nonprofit behind the ballot question, joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss their fight to eliminate a separate minimum wage for tipped workers. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Arun Rath: Obviously, straight out of the gate, you’re on the “yes” side. I gave a little explanation of why, but tell us why you believe that tipped service workers shouldn’t get a lower minimum wage.

Saru Jayaraman: Sure. The restaurant industry has been one of the largest and fastest-growing private sector employers in Massachusetts and across the country for decades. But it’s been the absolute lowest-paying employer for generations, dating all the way back to emancipation.

Prior to emancipation, waiters in Boston were mostly guys who earned a full minimum wage with no tips. Tipping was not prevalent at the time. They went on strike in 1853 for higher wages, and in response, the restaurant industry started looking for cheaper labor, which they found after emancipation [in] hiring newly freed Black women in particular, not paying them and telling them, “You’re going to live on this new thing that’s come from Europe called a ‘tip.’”

That was the first time in world history that tipping changed from being an extra or bonus on top of a full wage or salary to becoming a replacement for wages as a way to allow restaurants to hire free Black labor after slaves were free.

That idea that you could pay people only in tips became law in 1938 as part of the New Deal, when everybody got the right to a federal minimum wage, but tipped workers were excluded. We went from $0 in 1938 all the way up to $2.13 at the federal level and $6.75 in Massachusetts.

Today, Massachusetts is one of 43 states that persists with this legacy of slavery for a workforce that is actually in large majority women — disproportionately women of color. We have the highest rates of single moms of any occupation. These are mostly women working in very casual restaurants across the state of Massachusetts, struggling with three times the poverty rate of other workers, using food stamps at double the rate of other workers, and experiencing the highest rate of sexual harassment of any industry, because they have to put up with so much to get tips from costumers.

Meanwhile, if you look at these seven states that have always required a full minimum wage with tips on top, those states actually have higher restaurant sales per capita, higher small business growth rates than Massachusetts in the restaurant industry, higher tipping averages than Massachusetts, half the rate of sexual harassment we find in those states, compared to states like Massachusetts that have a sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.

In those states, women aren’t as completely dependent on the tips. They get tips — in fact, in many of those states, they get more tips than they get in Massachusetts. But they’re not so dependent on tips that they feel like they have to put up with as much from customers as they do in Massachusetts, where that $6.75 wage is so low. It often goes entirely to taxes, and workers are entirely dependent on the whims and vagaries of tips to feed their kids and pay the rent.

That’s not a very sustainable or stable livelihood, and that became even more clear with the pandemic, [when] we saw six million workers lose their jobs. Two-thirds of tipped workers reported to us that they couldn’t get unemployment insurance because they were told their wages were too low to qualify for benefits. Then, they went back to work. They found that tips had gone down, harassment had gone up.

A lot of workers started leaving the industry; 1.2 million restaurant workers walked off the job in the last couple of years following the pandemic, and we’ve seen thousands of restaurants raise wages to recruit staff. We’re seeing many restaurants in Massachusetts that have already done this.

They’re saying, “Look. We want a level playing field. Everybody should have to pay a full minimum wage with tips on top because it’s the only way we’re going to have workers come back to this industry and be a sustainable profession.

Frankly, that’s what it is. That’s what this comes down to. These are not disposable workers. These are not low-skill workers. These are skilled professionals who, in other countries, are treated as skilled professionals, and they should be treated that way in Massachusetts.

Rath: That’s fascinating — particularly the deep history of the practice, which I had no idea about. Talk a bit more about the very recent history of One Fair Wage. You’ve run successful campaigns now in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Tell us what it was like in those other cities and how they compare to the push you’re making here.

Jayaraman: Absolutely. With the enormous, incredible marketplace transformation we’re seeing on this issue across the country post-pandemic, with so many restaurants voluntarily raising wages to recruit staff, we realized in 2022 that this is a unique moment in history. We have to go really big. We launched something called ‘25 by 250,’ where we have raised millions of dollars to move ballot measures and bills in 25 states to raise wages.

What’s so exciting is that it’s working. We won, as you said, in Washington, D.C. — 75% of voters in D.C. voted to raise wages for tipped workers from $5 to $16/hour. One year after the passage of that bill in November 2022, we looked at the data.

[There were] 10% more restaurants in D.C., 7% more jobs in D.C. and 6.8% higher tips and wages. Everything seems to be going just fine for the industry, and workers are moving towards getting a stable minimum wage with tips on top.

Our biggest victory to date was in Chicago. The City Council of Chicago voted to end the minimum wage for tipped workers [by] 36 to 10. Following that victory in Illinois and a dozen states across the country, we are moving bills and ballot measures this year.

It’s not just blue states moving in this direction; it’s red and purple states moving in this direction, given the rising cost of living post-pandemic. More and more workers are saying enough is enough. More and more employers are responding to the demand for higher wages. And more and more policymakers and states are moving in this direction because it’s what workers need to survive.

Rath: There’s also a study that found that 86% of tipped workers said they don’t think the current model needs to change.

Jayaraman: That was a “study” conducted by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association in which they asked their employees, “Would you prefer a minimum wage or the current model?” That has nothing to do with the current proposal.

We’re not actually replacing the current model with a minimum wage; we’re demanding what California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana and Alaska already have, which is a full minimum wage with tips on top.

We’ve done a more scientific poll of restaurant workers. Seventy to 80% of workers say, “Of course, I want a full minimum wage with tips on top.” Most Massachusetts voters from whom we collected signatures said, “I am so ashamed that Massachusetts has a wage of $6.75. I am embarrassed, and I want Massachusetts to join the group of states around the country that are requiring these workers to be paid a full minimum wage, with tips on top.”