Ginger Jentzen: The tipping point

Ginger Jentzen. Photo courtesy of Jentzen.

This is a really a women’s issue. The majority of low-wage workers are women – and often women of color.

– Ginger Jentzen

Ginger Jentzen is fun, energetic, articulate and smart – the kind of person you’d love to have as your server in a restaurant or as your employee. But you might not want to have her as your opponent in the minimum-wage debate because her energy is fueled by a sense of fairness and a touch of righteous indignation.

She spoke out last spring against the proposed “tip penalty,” a plan launched in the Minnesota House of Representatives to modify minimum-wage laws and allow restaurants to pay tipped employees a lower base wage. It would have frozen servers at the current $8.00 minimum wage, even as the bottom wage for non-tipped employees rises.

The server workforce

Jentzen, who is an organizer for the local chapter of 15NOW, a national group that advocates for a $15 minimum wage, was a tipped restaurant server for years and speaks with passion based on experience.

She grew up in Duluth, worked in a fast-food restaurant in high school and later as a restaurant server – even after graduating from college – and sometimes worked multiple jobs. “When I graduated in 2008, it was a pretty dour situation,” Jentzen says. “There were a lot of young people in the late 2000s who didn’t find the workforce super-welcoming. At least I was single, but I worked with women who were trying to support a family.” What she saw prompted her to join 15NOW as an organizer and to speak out on behalf of all low-wage workers.

“There are a lot of myths about the server workforce,” she says. “For example, a lot of people think most servers are men working in fancy restaurants who make a ton of money, but they are the minority. Nationally, the median tipped wage is $8.68 per hour. That’s not a livable wage, no matter where you live.”

Many envision servers as poorly educated, young and doing it temporarily. To the contrary, she reports, most have at least some college education; half are 30 and older; and one in five female servers are mothers.

“This is a really a women’s issue,” Jentzen says. “The majority of low-wage workers are women – and often women of color.”

She adds, “It’s tough, and for a lot of people it’s their career. They’re professionals, good at what they do.”

To Insure Promptitude

Our strange custom of tipping, in which customers essentially foot the bill for servers’ wages, is thought to have started in the taverns of 17th-century England where drinkers would slip money to the waiter “to insure promptitude,” or T.I.P. for short.

The practice made its way into U.S. dining and drinking establishments despite the fact that most Americans saw tipping as being incompatible with the ideals of an egalitarian society because it created a servile class that would be financially dependent on a higher class. Depending on one’s perspective, that may have come true. Low-wage jobs are disproportionately held by people of color, women and immigrants so the fight for higher wages has overtones of gender, race and social equality.

The low-wage service sector exploded after the 2008 recession because those were the only jobs available. As the economy improves, however, unemployment levels are falling and more jobs are going vacant. That creates pressure to boost wage levels that have been stubbornly stagnant since 2008.

Last year, the Minnesota Legislature passed a new minimum-wage bill in which the minimum increases to $9.50 per hour in 2016. Beginning in 2018, the minimum wage will rise in annual increments with inflation. “That was a huge victory for organized labor,” Jentzen says.

But this year, House Republicans and the National Restaurant Association (an organization that some call “America’s other NRA”) made what Jentzen calls a “serious shot across the bow” to undermine wage increases by proposing the tip penalty.

That legislation was defeated, and Minnesota remains one of only five states that have the same minimum wage whether the worker is tipped or not. Every state that borders Minnesota has a dramatically lower sub-minimum wage carved out for tipped employees – for example, $2.33 in Wisconsin.

“It’s a big victory for workers,” she says.

Beyond the restaurant

And Jentzen is just getting fired up. The efforts of food-industry workers have brought national attention to the wage debate. She says, “These victories are raising workers’ confidence in organizing, seeing that it’s possible to win when they build pressure from below.”

So Jentzen and other labor organizers are seizing the opportunity to press for better wages and working conditions for other workers. Her next goal: raising wages for Minneapolis-St. Paul airport workers to $15 per hour, which has been inspired by the new $15 minimum wage in Seattle and for workers at Seattle-Tacoma Airport.

Ultimately, when wages rise, everyone wins, Jentzen says, because “higher wages yield a happier, healthier and more stable workforce.”