The Jewish Community Needs to Fight to Raise the Minimum Wage

As young Jews of Color, we're urging our fellow Jews to draw inspiration from the Torah’s call for fair labor practices.

Recently, President Joe Biden raised the federal contractor minimum wage to $15 and publicly called on Congress to support raising the universal wage. As young organizers of color at Jewish Youth for Community Action (JYCA), we’re calling on the Jewish community to unequivocally support raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour, including all service workers. Why? It’s the right thing to do to be in solidarity with people of color, Jewish or otherwise — and Jewish law clearly states a living wage is necessary.

Anyone who’s worked in a salon, restaurant or any other service job knows this struggle well. As Jews of Color, we feel that this is an issue that needs to be talked about and acted against, and our Jewish identity only affirms those feelings.

Here, we’ll break down why we’re fighting for raising the minimum wage for all service workers, and what our Jewish tradition has to say about it.

What has led to this campaign?

Over the last couple months, JYCA has been partnering up with One Fair Wage, an organization that gives support to service workers, listening to their needs and fighting for their rights. While phone banking, we’ve talked to service workers and heard their stories, before and during the pandemic, and frankly, it’s incredibly disheartening. Many already had trouble living off their given wage and were left in the dust once the pandemic hit. Women and femme-presenting workers in the service industry constantly face sexual harrassment, which they had to put up with because it’s their only source of income.

Right now, the minimum wage for tipped workers is over $5 less than the regular wage, which is $7.25/hour. Restaurants are required by law to pay their workers the full wage if it’s not reached in tips, but that rarely happens, creating an environment in which workers have to rely on their customers for their income, not their employers.

What is so problematic about tipping? 

OK, you might not have seen this coming, but tipping is one of the many (many) things that stems from slavery. After slavery was declared illegal in 1865, the tipping system was introduced as a way for wealthy white former slaveowners to keep a tight grip on Black labor. So, instead of stable wages, the predominantly Black population of service workers were reliant on the tips given from customers. And there you have it: de facto slavery.

The first federal minimum wage was implemented in the 1930s, but service workers were intentionally excluded in order to keep that de facto slavery system mentioned earlier. In the 1960s service workers did get a raise, but this “subminimum wage” was less than adequate, to say the least.

Knowing this information, it should be no surprise that people of color make up a disproportionate percentage of the service industry, with both Black and Latinx folks being a higher proportion of the food service workforce than the general population. Tipping along with the subminimum wage should be seen as nothing less than what it is: continued economic exploitation of people of color.

As people of color in America, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring subjects of racial injustice, we don’t have the privilege to only talk about the constant abuse and murder whenever we feel like it. Subjects like this are an ever-looming presence that we’ll never be free from. The way we dress, speak, interact with other people — all these things are dictated by our racial identities and the fear and unease that comes along with them. In and outside of the Jewish community, we are treated like monoliths, bombarded with questions and stereotypes that make us feel as if we aren’t human, just an exotic museum piece, something foreign. Our experiences as people of color are the root of why we feel that wage justice is an urgent issue.

So tipping is racist. Anything else?

Along with the disgusting history of racism, the tipping system also leaves service workers vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse; the service industry’s rate of harrassment is dauntingly high, especially in states that rely on the tipping system, with 90% of women and 70% of men reporting having experienced harassment at work. The deep-rooted unbalanced power dynamic between customer and server does not only result in unlivable wages, but can very well lead to life-long trauma.

As both people of color and women, Black women — who already earn less on average — bear the brunt of this mistreatment. The abuse women and femmes of color face is unsurprisingly rooted in racist hypersexualization and made even worse by the lack of protection from the tipping system.

As women and femmes of color, we have been exposed to almost thoughtless conversations where white women try on our “ethnic features” just for shits and giggles. Our white peers take our identities and appropriate them in order to look “more attractive and ethnically ambiguous” while women of color are being targeted and fetishized in low-wage jobs, just for not being able to pretend to be white.

So what does Judaism have to say about all this? 

As Jews, our tradition obligates us to pay a livable wage.

Several Talmudic rabbis have said that employers should be responsible for the well-being of their workers, and not just for completing the tasks they’re obligated to do. If we apply halakhic (Jewish religious) laws to present-day work, it means raising the minimum wage to a livable level. But that’s much easier said than done.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Rambam, commented on the issue, saying that employers must pay their workers immediately, or else “he will die of hunger that night,” supporting the idea (and fact) that workers who get wages on time will be able to support themselves and their families. Supporting a much more livable wage of $15 would not only support the welfare of service workers and stop the reliance on customer goodwill, but also fulfill this commandment — sounds great, right? We have to hold Jewish employers accountable, and make sure they are maintaining these standards that are such a big part of our values as Jewish people.

As Jews of Color, we also have an obligation to our community to fight against the racist exploitation that the subminimum wage perpetuates. In order for white Jews to truly be in solidarity with communities of color, they must support this issue that disproportionately impacts us. We urge our fellow Jews to draw inspiration from the Torah’s call for fair labor practices and see that taking a stand on this issue is not only morally right, but what is demanded of us from our tradition.

To say that we are only fighting for a fair pay would be ignorant. We are fighting against a history of our people, people of color, being treated as less than human, and we want our Jewish community to show up and support us in this fight.

How can people support this cause?

  1. Put pressure on your legislators to support the Raise the Wage Act (increases federal minimum wage to $15 an hour). Email your senators here.
  2. Add your name to the One Fair Wage petition, which supports getting rid of the subminimum wage for services workers.
  3. Donate to One Fair Wage to support their emergency fund, for workers in crisis.
  4. For a more comprehensive list of ways to support, go here. We thank our organizing partner, One Fair Wage, for collaborating with and helping lead our youth to take action on this important issue.

Naomi Hyman, Ray Williams and Annalise Kalmanoff

Naomi, Annalise and Ray are all part of Jews Against Marginalization, a Bay Area innovative leadership program of Jewish Youth for Community Action for Jews of Color, Sephardi, Mizrahi youth ages 14-18. Ray Williams (they/them) is a trans mulatto insomniac with a big ‘fro and a sharp tongue. Annalise Kalmanoff (she/her) is a senior at Berkeley High School and is interested in issues surrounding BIPOC Jews and mixed raced identity. Naomi Hyman (she/they) is a junior at Episcopal Academy.

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