Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin advocate for higher Mich. wages

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — Actress and native Detroiter Lily Tomlin knows what it’s like to be an underpaid, under-appreciated waitress.

“The only time I ever got a 20 percent tip was when a customer dropped a glass of water on my big toe and broke it,” Tomlin said. “... In a moment of extreme vulnerability, I even thanked him for the big tip. He actually had the nerve to say, ‘You’re welcome.’”

At the time, Tomlin’s husband was injured and unable to work, which made her the breadwinner.

“It fell to me to pay the bills,” Tomlin said, “but it’s hard to pay the bills when you don’t make a living wage.”

Tomlin was joined by actress Jane Fonda Thursday afternoon to advocate for raising the minimum wage to what Tomlin calls “a living wage.”

The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United organized the public event at Wayne State University to raise awareness about a possible One Fair Wage ballot proposal effort announced last week that would raise Michigan’s minimum wage from $8.90 to $12 an hour by 2022 and, over an eight-year period, phase out the current $3.38 an hour wage for tipped workers.

According to ROC, a national organization with more than 25,000 restaurant workers, the restaurant industry employs the largest percentage of minimum wage workers and 75 percent of tipped workers in Michigan. Of the 400,000 Michigan workers earning the $3 wage, over two-thirds are women who earn a median wage of $9 an hour with tips.

Speaking to a lecture hall packed with a diverse audience of all ages, Fonda and Tomlin used a comedic tone while sharing personal experiences, but turned serious when discussing how women, especially, suffer from unequal pay in the restaurant industry.

“This is not just an economic issue. This is a gender issue,” stressed Fonda, adding that 80 percent of restaurant workers are women.

“Seventy percent of tipped workers who earn that measly $3.38 an hour are women,” Tomlin pointed out. “We are waitresses all over the country working at busy Coney Island diners, Denny’s, Olive Gardens, IHOPs. And remember, it’s not IHOPE.”

Fonda, 79, and Tomlin, 78, addressed the topic at Kalamazoo College on Tuesday and will stop at the University of Michigan’s Power Center for the Performing Arts Friday. While they’re not Michigan residents, the two co-stars in the Netflix comedy series "Grace and Frankie" are no strangers to the Great Lakes State.

Tomlin grew up in Detroit and attended Cass Tech High School and Wayne State. Fonda was married to the late Tom Hayden, an activist from Royal Oak who attended the University of Michigan.

Tomlin, who received the Life Achievement Award the Screen Actors Guild Awards this year, also spoke at the fourth annual Detroit Homecoming event Wednesday and received a key to the city from Mayor Mike Duggan.

On Thursday, Tomlin wasn’t shy about calling out Michigan’s wage laws.

“Since the first minimum wage law passed in 1938, the wages of restaurant workers have gone from $0 per hour to $2.13 on the federal level to $3.38 here in Michigan,” she said. “A $3 raise in over 80 years. Whoop de doo. And no, this is not fake news.”

In January, Michigan's hourly minimum wage will rise for the fourth-straight year to $9.25 as a result of a law Gov. Rick Snyder approved in 2014. Under the One Fair Wage proposal, the wage would rise to $10 in 2019, $10.65 in 2020, $11.35 in 2021 and $12 in 2022.

The minimum wage for tipped workers rises to $3.52 next year. Under the proposal, it would gradually increase to reach the minimum wage for all other workers in 2024.

ROC United co-founder Saru Jayaraman also spoke at Thursday’s event, where she asked the audience to raise their hands if they’ve ever worked in the restaurant industry. Nearly everyone shot up their arms, underscoring her point that 1 in 2 Americans has worked in the industry at some point in their lives. Nationwide, she said the restaurant industry encompasses 12 million workers.

“This is the largest growing sector of our economy, and it is the absolute lowest-paying sector in the United States, and what does it mean to have the largest and fastest industry growing the lowest-paying jobs?” she asked. “...What is going to happen to our industry when half of the nation can’t afford to eat out?”

Jayaraman is advocating for the One Fair Wage proposal, but not everyone is supportive of the initiative.

Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant Association, has said the proposal would kill jobs and is "irresponsible and dangerously out of touch.”

Wendy Block of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce told The Detroit News last week that the labor costs would have to be made up “somewhere.”

“Whether it’s raising the prices on goods and services or making cuts elsewhere, the costs are real,” Block said.

Some Michigan residents believe the minimum wage should be much more. Retired West Bloomfield Public Schools teacher Mary Powers, 68, said she thinks the minimum wage should be at least $20 and attended the talk Thursday.

“It improves the economy because people can afford a better quality of life and are able to spend and purchase, and that’s how the economy grows — through people spending money, not by people at the top making more money,” Powers said.

The Associated Press contributed.


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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg