On the eve of Valentine’s Day, as the waiters and waitresses of America braced themselves for the flood of well-intentioned dinner dates, activists gathered in Raleigh to argue restaurant workers should be paid more.

The representatives from the NC Justice Center, N.C. Council of Churches, North Carolina MomsRising, and the North Carolina AFL-CIO met in Nash Square Park on Monday chose the date—Feb. 13—to symbolize the subminimum wage that many restaurant and service workers earn.

At $2.13 an hour, the subminimum wage, also called a tipping wage, is the portion of the minimum wage that employers must guarantee their workers. To earn more than $2.13 an hour, servers depend on tips. When the subminimum wage plus tips is less than the federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25, employers then must make up the difference.

The result, according to a report released by the NC Justice Center, is an average hourly wage of $9.66 for the 340,000 food service and serving-related jobs in North Carolina. A full third of waiters and waitresses live at or below the federal poverty level.

Part of the problem is that the $2.13 tipping wage hasn’t increased in more than 20 years. After its introduction in 1966, the tipping wage was pegged at or near 50 percent of the federal minimum wage. However, in 1996 federal legislation, the tipping wage was frozen at $2.13 while minimum wage rose to $5.15. The tipping wage has remained at $2.13 ever since, even as the minimum wage has increased.

That five-dollar gap has enormous ramifications. “When two-thirds of your wage comes from whether or not the person in front of you likes the way you look, you end up acting in a way that matches their desires, not really as a human interaction,” said Sendolo Diaminah, who worked as a server from 2008—2011, after one year of looking for a job. Although he was a successful waiter, Diaminah’s income fluctuated widely depending on how busy his shifts happened to be, or if nearby Duke University was in session.

Current conditions in the restaurant industry are also a threat to public health, according to the NC Justice Center report’s author, Sabine Schoenbach. “In North Carolina, four out of five workers in food-service occupations lack paid sick days,” Schoenefeld wrote, often forcing them to work when they’re ill because they could not afford the lost income, or because they were afraid of losing their jobs.
She reports a statistic that two-thirds of restaurant workers had served or prepared food while sick, and a more horrifying statistic that 12 percent of restaurant workers had stayed on the job while experiencing vomiting and diarrhea.

The lack of paid sick days and volatility of income also has nuances of a gender equality issue, says Schoenbach, noting that almost 80 percent of tipped workers are women. Beth Messersmith, campaign director of NC MomsRising, says the conditions are especially difficult for mothers, who must balance motherhood with unforgiving schedules, and low wages with childcare costs. “Mothers shouldn’t have to choose between being good parents and good employees,” said Messersmith.

The voices and concerns from Nash Square echoed a national day of action from the Restaurant Opportunities Center, whose local branches nationwide met with national legislators to discuss the tipping wage.
The ROC is campaigning for the passage of the WAGES Act, a bill that would update the tipping wage to $5.50 over two years. The bill would also ensure the tipping wage would be at least 70 percent of the minimum wage.

The WAGES Act, however, is facing opposition from the National Restaurant Association and others. “I think ultimately what it’s about is passing the costs of uncertainty onto the workers,” said Diaminah. During the recession, he noticed diners continued to eat out, but tipped less—a hit absorbed entirely by his and his co-workers’ paychecks. “We become the shock absorber for the economy.”