NEWARK, NJ - Jane Fonda got higher wages for women through unscrupulous means in the 1980's comedy "9 to 5," but now she's advocating for a $15 minimum wage for tipped workers in more traditional ways.

The Academy Award-winning actor and activist  spoke at Rutgers University-Newark today with advocacy groups and a state lawmaker to support a $15 minimum wage, especially for restaurant workers who make a federal minimum wage of $2.13 an hour plus tips in New Jersey.

“Being an actor, I tend to try to put myself in the situation of a person that's facing this problem, and I just don't know how more than 13 million people in the United States survives with that kind of stress,” Fonda said, later adding “some people in this country are so rich that they don't even know what to do with all their money.”

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Two-thirds of tipped workers are women, a group Fonda has heavily advocated for. Nearly 90 percent of women in the restaurant industry have reported sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a nonprofit that advocates for service sector employees known as Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) Action.

Tipped workers make less than New Jersey’s $8.60 minimum wage, but employers are supposed to make up the shortfall if they don’t make that much with tips. The ROC says employers oftentimes don’t meet that obligation though, and tipped workers are hesitant to ask for it because they fear getting fired.

Women are more likely to be told by management to wear more revealing clothing in states where income is dependent on tips, according to the ROC. Sexual harassment claims were cut in half in states that did away with the tip system that’s in place in New Jersey, Fonda said.

“That is a very, very significant statistic to put in your pipe and smoke it,” she said. “It really shows the relationship between sexual harassment and pay equity. When women get paid a fair wage, they're not treated the same, and they won't put up with it if they're treated badly.”

Fonda gained notoriety as an activist in the 1970s when she protested against the Vietnam War. She began working with the ROC in 2016, and stood alongside the group’s president today at Rutgers.

"One in 11 American workers currently works in restaurants and one in two Americans have worked in restaurants at some point in their lifetimes,” said Saru Jayaraman. “Half of us have worked in restaurants. It is the number one fastest growing industry in America, and yet the absolute bottom of the barrel, lowest-paying employer in the United States."

A $15 minimum wage is something that Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned on, but it hasn’t come to fruition yet.

There are currently two bills in the state Legislature that would work together to make sure all of the state’s employees make $15 an hour -- with no carve-outs for tipped workers.

The first bill is sponsored by Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex, Passaic) and would phase in a minimum wage of up to $15 over several years. The second bill, sponsored by Shavonda Sumter (D-Bergen, Passaic) would ensure that tipped workers make the state minimum wage, which could go up to $15 should the first bill pass. 

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney has reportedly said he has some concerns about how a $15 minimum wage would affect small businesses though, and it’s not clear when either measure would pass. Sumter, who attended today’s event, said she wants to make sure the bill is done right and “for all the right reasons.”

"We're going to talk to everyone," Sumter said when TAPinto Newark asked about small businesses. "But what we can't do is not have the conversations that need to be had so that we can have an impact that's going to -- we're talking about -- eliminating 30 percent of sexual harassment victims. We're talking about people not needing social safety nets…”

A political organization known as the New Jersey Working Families Alliance also showed support today for a $15 minimum wage. Analilia Mejia, the organization’s executive director, said farm workers and tipped employees have historically never reaped the benefits of programs like Social Security and Medicaid that were developed under President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.

“That exclusion was crafted in a racist moment in history in our nation,” Mejia said to the audience at Rutgers. “In 2018, in the great state of New Jersey, where we have a Democratic governor -- and Democratic leadership in the Senate and Democratic leadership in the Assembly -- we cannot accept the replication of a racist, unfair, unjust moment in history."

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