02/11/2011 11:27 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Wages Can't Wait This Valentine's Day

On Valentine's Day, millions of couples will head to their local eateries for a romantic dinner for two. It's the most popular date night of the year -- and also the highest grossing day for the restaurant industry. Our nation's en masse dinner date will be made possible by a bastion of poverty-wage earners working overtime to cook our food, serve our drinks, clean our dishes, and provide a special evening out.

Restaurants are the single largest employers of minimum wage workers, with one in three employees earning the lowest legal wage. The federal minimum wage for servers, busboys and other tipped employees is just $2.13 an hour. If that sounds like a wage from another era, that's because it is: the last time Congress raised these workers' pay was two decades ago -- in 1991.

While their take home pay is supplemented by tips, very few waiters and waitresses work in fine dining establishments that offer higher earnings -- picture the waitress at the diner on the New Jersey Turnpike. The median wage for servers is $9.22 an hour, or $20,000 a year for fulltime, full year work (though steady fulltime schedules are scarce in the restaurant industry). As a result, one in six waiters and waitresses fall below the federal poverty line.

In a protracted period of painfully high unemployment, it's tempting to disregard the importance of wages. That's why we've heard repeatedly that in these tough economic times people just need a job -- any job -- and the pay doesn't matter. But when you replace a $50,000 a year job, home and retirement savings with a $20,000 a year job, a foreclosure and a decimated retirement, where is the prospect for economic recovery?

While job losses during the recession were widely distributed and included significant losses in higher-wage industries, an analysis by the National Employment Law Project finds that net job growth in 2010 has occurred disproportionately in low-wage industries. Jobs in construction and manufacturing are still missing in action, while low-paying service sector jobs are rebounding.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, although the economy lost 5 million jobs from 2007 to 2009, the number of waiters grew by about 68,000. The overall workforce has grown by 1.8 percent since 2000, but the number of waiters has grown by 7.5 percent.

More and more, America will be depending on service sector workers like waiters and waitresses to support our families and propel economic recovery with increased consumer spending. That's why we must raise wages for our lowest paid service workers, which includes restoring the long-eroded wages of tipped employees.

Thirty-two states have raised the tipped wage above the federal rate of $2.13, and legislation is being introduced this session in states including Maryland, Illinois, California, and Massachusetts to give a pay boost to tipped workers. In the coming weeks, Maryland Representative Donna Edwards will be reintroducing the WAGES Act in Congress, which would raise the federal tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage by 2012 -- an increase to $5.03 an hour based on the current minimum wage of $7.25.

When Franklin Roosevelt enacted the nation's first minimum wage law during the depths of the Great Depression in 1938, he emphasized that a strong wage floor is "an essential part of economic recovery." Raising the lowest wage puts money into the hands of people who will spend it immediately in their communities. Rather than waiting for the economy to improve, raising wages now for our lowest paid workers can help jumpstart the economy and spur job growth.

At one time, the manufacturing jobs that we now yearn for were dangerous, low-wage, undesirable jobs. But we turned them into good jobs, improving workplace safety and raising pay to create the middle class that fueled American economic prosperity for half a century. We should do the same for waiters, waitresses, and the rest of the growing ranks of our service sector.

This Valentine's Day, as we enjoy a special evening out, we must recommit to better serve the workers who work so hard serving us.