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Dan Haar: A noble food fight over minimum wage for servers at CT restaurants

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Five state lawmakers, four of them women, served up food and drinks for an hour on Friday morning at Blue Plate Kitchen in West Hartford, one of my regular local eateries. Their goal: to call attention to the struggles of restaurant servers, largely women, under the state’s so-called sub-minimum wage for tipped employees, $6.38 an hour.

They might earn less than that as Connecticut legislators and they don’t even collect tips except for the sage advice of lobbyists, but that’s a different column. On Friday, the five toiled through breakfast to support a bill at the state Capitol that would end the sub-min-wage in favor of the regular minimum wage for all servers and bartenders.

That’s $14 an hour, heading up to $15 on June 1, and of course, tips would add to the servers’ earnings.  Many restaurants, and the association that represents them, say raising the base is an expense the industry, and its customers, can’t bear even in good times – let alone when the pandemic’s shock to food establishments still reverberates.

Supporters say the “One Fair Wage” system, in place in seven red and blue states — California, Alaska, Minnesota, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Nevada — brings justice and stability to the server workforce, which numbers about 70,000 in Connecticut.  And they say that contrary to the cries of the Connecticut Restaurant Association and its national umbrella group, ending the sub-minimum wage is actually good for business.

We heard both sides go at it in a public hearing at the Capitol Thursday that went from morning into night and touched on slavery, sexual harassment and the Great Resignation of workers in the pandemic.

Everybody claims the greater good. Activists favoring the full minimum wage plus tips for all servers insist restaurant owners are worried needlessly; they’ll be better off with an end to the lower tipped wage and workers would clearly benefit.  Owners warned that thousands of servers – who now average more than $30 an hour in Connecticut — would be worse off with the full minimum wage as a base, as jobs and tips dissipate.

Slavery and sexual harassment

It’s likely neither side is altogether wrong. Would a higher base wage for servers act like the gut-punch of food inflation we’ve seen over the last two years at restaurants? Or would it more resemble the ban on smoking 30 years ago, which restaurants said would be the end of them, and instead ushered in a golden age?

“Despite everything you may heard from the opposition, these seven states have higher restaurant sales per capita, higher job growth in the restaurant industry, higher small business growth, the chains grow faster in these seven states, we have higher rates of tipping in these seven states and one half the level of sexual harassment,” said Saru Jayaraman, an activist and author from Oakland whose book, “One Fair Wage, Ending Subminimum Pay in America,” is the touchstone of the movement.

Sexual harassment? “These women have to tolerate so much to get tips to feed their families,” said Jayaraman, a graduate of Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and heads the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Susan Warzecha, now an organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, talked about her 27 years as a cocktail waitress. “I have years of stories from working at the casino and local bars,” she told the General Assembly’s labor committee, which appears likely to advance the measure to the full House and Senate this month.

Like, men asking her to kiss them for a tip, she said. Or, “asking me to twirl around so they could check me out before they would give me a tip…But my all-time personal favorite is when they would ask if they could insert the tip in my bra.”

Slavery? Tipping was rising as a custom in the United States around end of the Civil War, Jayaraman explained. “At Emancipation, restaurants mutated the notion of tipping from being an extra or bonus, to becoming a replacement for wages in order to be able to access free Black labor…Connecticut continues to be one of 43 states that persist at this legacy of slavery.”

‘It will not increase earnings’

Anyone earning the tipped wage is entitled to at least the minimum wage even if tips don’t make up the difference, but supporters of the bill say that’s poorly enforced.  And the stress of serving, with low pay in many cases, has led to the exodus of employees that restaurant owners are still struggling to reverse.

Still, clearly there are thousands of good server jobs in Connecticut, fed by a robust culture of dining out – especially at higher-end, full-service restaurants.

“I may be overly optimistic, but I think that there’s a path where we can agree on some common goals,” Adam Halberg, CEO of Barcelona Wine Bar, with 19 restaurants in the United States, five in Connecticut, told the committee. “I think we can all agree that people who work, whether it’s in restaurants or other industries, deserve high quality, good paying jobs, a reasonable income that is far from the poverty line.”

Funny, that sounds like the last line of the introduction in Jayaraman’s “One Fair Wage,” in which she said the pandemic revealed deep inequities and created opportunities for lasting change. “There is no going back – we can only go forward together and reimagine an economy in which all thrive.”

But how?  “Removing the tipped minimum wage without a cohesive plan, to my mind will result in increased service charges, increased menu prices, increased replacement of people with technology and potentially increased income inequality,” Halberg said. “It will not increase earnings for most currently tipped employees.”

Halberg and other restaurant executives suggested the top places would still thrive, the lower-priced restaurants would decrease service and, Halberg said, “the middle will start to hollow out.”  In other words, a policy designed to eliminate economic injustice would lead to more economic inequality in the restaurant world.

A companion bill, which would force larger businesses to set schedules well in advance for employees, also drew praise from the activists and scorn from the industry.

When it comes to ending the sub-minimum wage, we ought to know enough from the seven states to be able to draw conclusions. One wage is obviously simpler. It could lead to higher prices at least at first — although Jayaraman said data shows the increases are not dramatic —  and it would squeeze restaurants that are barely hanging on. But it would benefit more workers in an industry that can be brutal.

At the Blue Plate on Friday, it seemed like state Reps. Kara Rochelle, D-Ansonia; Robyn Porter, D-New Haven; Corey Paris, D-Stamford; Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford; and Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, had done this job before. Some of them had.

“I haven’t made any big blunders yet today,” Kushner said, “but I know that when you do, that can cost you dearly in tips.”

“The good thing,” said Shellye Davis, executive vice president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, which is strongly working the bill, “they won’t have to count on their tips to pay their bills.”

 dhaar@hearstmediact.com

 

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