Guest post by Jose Oliva, Policy Director of Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)

Advocates and members of Congress call for increased minimum wage for servers and others that has remained at $2.13 for 20 years

This Valentine’s Day, the restaurant industry’s busiest day of the year, a new research report shows that women who work in the industry face systematic discrimination, lack of paid sick days, and more harassment than the general female workforce. One major cause of poverty for these working women is that restaurant lobbyists have succeeded in keeping the federal minimum wage for servers and other tipped workers frozen at only $2.13 per hour for the past 20 years. This wage gap increases dramatically if the tipped worker is a woman of color.

Mayaba Liebenthal

Take for instance Mayaba Liebenthal, who has worked in multiple positions in the restaurant industry for over 15 years. As an African American woman working in New Orleans, Louisiana, Mayaba has experienced a system of blatant discrimination from employers and customers alike.

In a recent conversation with Mayaba, she told me that “at one particular establishment where I worked, the owner one day drunkenly approached me and said, ‘When I first heard that the manager hired a black chick, I was like WOAH! But now that I’ve met you, I can tell you’re a classy [expletive].’ In a way,” Mayaba reflected, “he only said out loud what most of my employers think anyway.”

In most of the establishments where Mayaba has worked as a server, she has been the only African American in that position. In each one of them, she’s been the only African American woman, and she’s never had an African American manager.  “I come to you as an exception, a black woman lucky enough to enjoy the privilege of working for $2.13 an hour,” she stated.

Mayaba knows she has virtually no chance of advancing in her position within the restaurant industry, as either a manger or working at a fine dining restaurant where the expected tips would be higher. Due to the nature of New Orleans tourism, her pay relies on the ebb and flow of seasonal influxes of customers, going through periods of relative comfort to periods of serious lean. In the last month she’s had both her phone and electricity cut off, having to make the decision of what she could go without for a few days until she could afford it.

Mayaba can’t afford a car and therefore relies on a bicycle or an only moderately-reliable public transportation system to get to and from work. “If anything were to happen to me while biking, I would face a deep and frightening dilemma. I rely on my body to be able to make money to live. Like most Americans, I don’t have health insurance or access to health care. However, in my case and for others in my situation, I don’t get any sick leave and have to work while sick sometimes.  If I get seriously sick or injured, I could lose my job. So, it’s garlic, ginger, and a prayer at the first sign of a sniffle.”

Mayaba, along with Congresswoman Donna Edwards and ROC United Founder and Director Saru Jayaraman, are all participating in a congressional briefing today to unveil new research by ROC United entitled “Tipped Over the Edge.” The report documents the exploitation of working women in one of the nation’s largest and fastest growing industries. The report will be released at a briefing on Capitol Hill with members of Congress and leading advocacy organizations.

Visit the ROC United Action Center to tell your member of Congress that you support an increase to the Tipped Minimum Wage!

Sponsoring organizations

  • U.S. Representative Donna Edwards and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton
  • Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United)
  • Family Values @ Work
  • HERVotes Coalition
  • The Institute For Women’s Policy Research
  • MomsRising
  • National Coalition On Black Civic Participation’s Black Women’s Roundtable
  • National Council For Research On Women
  • National Organization For Women
  • National Partnership For Women & Families
  • National Women’s Law Center
  • Wider Opportunities For Women
  • Women Of Color Policy Network (NYU Wagner)
  • 9to5 National Association of Working Women

Jose Oliva


A native of Chicago and former restaurant worker, Jose Oliva is ROC United’s Policy Coordinator. He previously founded the Chicago Interfaith Worker Justice Center and the Interfaith Worker Justice National Workers’ Center Network. He also served as worker’s rights coordinator for the Center for Community Change.