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AAPI restaurant workers urge Congress to raise minimum wage and decouple it from tips

By Yunfei Liu

Trupti Patel has been working as a server in local restaurants in D.C. since 2011. Transitioning from one shift to another, she packs up her lunch before her work to save money and experiences the strain on her knees after working shifts that can extend from 6 to 12 hours. Sometimes, she is forced to endure racist comments that leave her feeling like a second-class citizen. She feels she is dispensable to her employer.

Recently, Patel is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with her restaurant operator to reclaim the tips she alleges he stole from her. Paid $10 an hour, Patel says she is a victim of wage theft.

For tipped workers like Patel, a system called subminimum wage makes it hard for them to count and get all their wages. Subminimum wage, which includes tipping as part of a worker’s minimum wage, is unstable and challenging for both restaurant workers to calculate and the Department of Labor to monitor, according to Paru Jayaraman, the President of One Fair Wage, a non-profit advocating for an increase in the minimum wage.

When a large part of their income is based on tips, she says it is also harder for servers to speak up against sexual harassment.

On Wednesday, congressional representatives, AAPI restaurant workers and owners from different states gathered in front of Capitol Hill to urge the passing of the Raise the Wage Act, a bill proposing a steady increase of minimum wage from $7.25 currently to $17 by 2028 nationwide. It also would eliminate the subminimum wage system.

“It[Raise the Wage Act] greatly reduces wage theft,” Patel said. “When you have a base minimum wage and the tips are on top of your base wage, it’s very easy to track to see how your money is getting to you.”

AAPI individuals, women, and other communities of color disproportionately contribute to the industry but are adversely affected by the low minimum wage and an unstable tipping wage system, according to One Fair Wage, the host of the event.

“If you don’t have customers coming to the restaurant, you’re going home with just the subminimum wage which is $5.35,” said Biplaw Rai, a Nepali American and the owner of Comfort Kitchen, an African-Asian fusion café. “It is not fair for the workers.”

Last summer, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a member of Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), introduced the Raise the Wage Act, proposing to increase the federal minimum wage and end the subminimum wage system.

All of the representatives who came to event to show their support are part of CAPAC, including its Chairwoman Judy Chu (D-Calif.) Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said she is one of the sponsors for this fair wage legislation in the Senate. 

Members of One Fair Wage
Photo by Yunfei Liu

“[There is] a significant contention in the AAPI constituents in Manhattan’s Chinatown and in Brooklyn’s Chinatown,” said Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.). “We need to make sure that this is done not just for the restaurant workers, but next for the deliveries, especially in New York City, which is such a huge part.”

Patel said passing the Raise the Wage Act would bring the hospitality industry one step closer to becoming a truly professionalized sector, where general workers like her can access benefits such as healthcare, retirement, and paid vacation. 

Minimum wage has emerged as a key concern for young voters and voters of color, driven by heightened worries about inflation and the rising cost of living, as indicated in a report by Lake Research Partners for One Fair Wage. Around 70% of restaurant workers expressed a greater inclination to vote for candidates advocating for an increase in the minimum wage, according to the report. 

“By far people’s ability to meet their basic economic needs is at the top of everybody’s mind this year – this election,” Jayaraman said. “And that’s why we are here to talk about it today.”

Rep. Judy Chu told AsAmNews that she and other supportive colleagues are awaiting action from the Republican majority to schedule the Raise the Wage Act for a committee hearing and floor vote.

(Editor’s note: A previous version of the story listed the subminimum wage incorrectly.)

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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