As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, it is important to acknowledge the lasting impacts of slavery on the workplace and the labor market. The at-will employment doctrine, which allows employers in most states to discharge workers for any reason, and the subminimum wage for tipped workers are both rooted in the employer backlash to Emancipation. These laws continue to disadvantage workers—Black and Latinx workers in particular.
The at-will doctrine stems from the period after the Civil War when employers, largely in the railroad industry, sought to limit the growing power of organized workers—including formerly enslaved Black workers—by reserving the right to fire them for any reason. Proponents argued that if workers now had the “right to quit” without restrictions, employers should have a “right to fire” without reason or explanation. Though never turned into legislation, this practice became entrenched in US law through judicial decisions over the course of several decades.
Today, most employers can legally fire anyone without warning or explanation, a power imbalance that forces many workers to accept exploitative working conditions out of fear of losing their jobs.
Under the at-will doctrine, it is exceedingly difficult for workers to prove when they have been illegally fired for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons or for government agencies to enforce laws protecting workers against discrimination or retaliation. These circumstances disproportionately affect Black and Latinx workers, who are more likely than white workers to have low-paying jobs and express concern about retaliation for speaking out about unsafe or unfair working conditions.
As a step toward addressing this power imbalance, state, local, and federal legislators must enact just-cause laws that protect workers against sudden and unjust firings. Just-cause job protections would require employers to provide and prove a justifiable reason for discharging a worker and to give fair notice. In turn, workers could more safely insist on better working conditions with less risk of losing their livelihoods.
Tipping in lieu of wages is another practice that became widespread following Emancipation, when hospitality-sector employers hired many formerly enslaved Black workers. Even after the Reconstruction era, the labor hierarchy that expected servitude from Black workers remained intact, and compensation for their labor was left to customer discretion. Despite the organizing efforts of tipped workers, most service industries were excluded from the first federal minimum wage law in 1938.
While employers are now required to pay tipped workers at least a subminimum wage, it has been frozen at a paltry $2.13 per hour at the federal level for more than 30 years. State law protections are little better in the 43 states with a subminimum wage. As a result, these workers’ livelihoods are still dependent on the good will of patrons. These laws technically require employers to cover differences between total tips and the minimum wage, but that requirement is hard to enforce and often ignored. As a result, tipped workers still earn fluctuating wages for their labor and may have to endure harassment from the customers they rely on. Black tipped workers—and Black women in particular—are at an even greater disadvantage because they earn less in tips than their white counterparts on average, with Black women making nearly $5 less per hour than white men.
The Raise the Wage Act of 2021, currently stalled in Congress, would phase out this unfair subminimum wage for tipped workers and raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour by 2025. According to the Economic Policy Institute, this shift would help eliminate poverty wages and raise the earnings of nearly a quarter of the US workforce—about 32 million workers. Nearly one in three Black workers, one in four Latinx workers, and one in five white workers would benefit from a raised minimum wage. Black and Latinx women in particular are overrepresented among workers who stand to benefit. According to the One Fair Wage campaign, which advocates for eliminating the subminimum wage, paying tipped workers the minimum wage, with tips on top, could reduce the race-gender wage gap in the restaurant industry by 35 percent.
Members of Congress must act now to pass the bill to make a living wage mandatory across the country.
This Juneteenth, we are in solidarity with workers taking to the streets as part of the Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly & Moral March on Washington and to the Polls to demand the right to an adequate standard of living and to work with dignity. Protecting workers from at-will firings, eliminating the subminimum wage, and raising wages overall are some of the minimum requirements for an equitable society, one in which all jobs pay a living wage and all workers can advocate for their rights without fear of retaliation or discrimination. Reversing unjust labor laws rooted in slavery is one step toward this vision—and it is long overdue.
This is a blog that originally appeared in full at Nelp on June 17, 2022. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Rebecca Dixon is the executive director of Nelp and an advocate for workers’ rights interested in the intersection of labor and racial equity.