The Subminimum Wage and its Roots in Slavery

By: Christianne Marguerite, Director of Communications at Progressive Maryland


The issue of the subminimum wage has a deep and complicated history that dates back to the early days of slavery. This system has evolved over time, but its roots in slavery remain even to this day. In recent years, efforts have been made to end this legacy by raising the minimum wage for certain groups of workers.

The earliest form of what is now known as the subminimum wage can be traced back to slave labor laws passed in colonial America, which allowed owners to pay enslaved persons less than what a free worker was required to receive. This was a direct result of racist legislation which sought to ensure that African Americans received fewer economic benefits than their white counterparts did. This created a legacy of discrimination for generations after slavery was abolished, as employers took advantage of legal loopholes that allowed them to pay African-American workers less than other groups for the same job.


In spite of efforts taken at various points over time, such as during Reconstruction or during the New Deal era, the practice remained entrenched even into modern times. As recently as 1998, Congress approved legislation which granted businesses an exemption from state minimum wage laws when they employed workers with disabilities – thus allowing employers to pay disabled workers below minimum wage without consequence.


Fortunately, there has been some progress towards ending this practice in recent years due to increased attention on issues related to economic inequality and justice. Currently, 28 states across the country have passed legislation designed to raise wages for workers who are traditionally underpaid such as those with disabilities or tipped employees like waiters and bartenders. Additionally, several activist groups around the country are pushing for an increase in wages for all employees regardless of their race or abilities in order to counteract systemic inequality that exists within our economy today. Progressive Maryland is among the organizations dedicated to ensuring a full liveable wage with tips on top, by passing legislation to support tipped workers (SB803/HB1256) [1].


These efforts show promise for finally putting an end to this outdated system that has remained rooted in racism and injustice since it first emerged centuries ago. By eliminating loopholes which allow employers to legally pay lower wages in certain instances, we can move closer towards truly achieving economic equality and eradicating discriminatory practices once and for all. 


Read more on this history in a report by One Fair Wage [2].


[1] Maryland General Assembly, “SB 0803 - Labor and Employment - Payment of Minimum Wage - Tipped Employees", 

[2] One Fair Wage, “Ending the Legacy of Slavery: Why Raising the Subminimum Wage is an Economic Necessity”, published January 2023,