Raise a glass in sympathy to the industry’s public affairs officers. It’s bad enough they’ll be rooting for days through Congress’ stimulus package, looking for possible boons to their companies or the business overall. Now there’s the Whack-a-Mole marathon that statehouses commenced last week, with new tip bills popping up faster than peanut product recalls. And if their chain has any restaurants in the U.K., they might as well start pounding the Red Bull right away. Cut with a little vodka, perhaps.
Most of the proposals deal with the tip credit, a provision of wage-and-hour laws that assumes servers earn most of their income in gratuities. In states where a credit is on the books, employers have to pay only a portion of the mandated minimum wage, with the rest coming from what customers leave on the table as tips. Many of the jurisdictions follow federal law, which requires employers to pay tipped staffers only $2.13 an hour, compared with the full minimum of $6.55.
The waiter, waitress or bartender makes no less than he or she would if they collected the full minimum wage—and, indeed, they often make considerably more. Rather, the credit merely allows some of that pay to come directly from patrons.
But movements afoot in states like Maine, Kansas and Missouri aim to change that situation, which has been the norm in all but eight states since the 1980s. Labor proponents say it’s unfair for servers to collect only a small fraction of what their non-tipped colleagues are paid under state wage requirements. Whatever they get in tips, the advocates argue, is icing on the cake, a gift they should be entitled to keep in addition to their hourly pay.
Restaurants, of course, argue that they can’t afford to pay more in wages right now. Some also point out that the traditional tip is 15%, whereas the profit margin for most restaurants is in the single digits, and often under 5%.
Indeed, the trade cited its dire economic conditions in trying, unsuccessfully, to institute a tip credit in Montana. The proposal was just defeated in the state Senate by a 29-21 bipartisan vote.
The industry was more successful earlier this month in Wyoming, beating back a proposal to adjust the tip credit there. The measure would have raised the hourly minimum wage for servers by $3 an hour.
Yet to be decided is a proposal in Maine, where a new union-like group patterned after one in New York City, the innocuous-sounding Restaurant Opportunities Center, is pushing to raise the minimum wage of servers to 60% of the mandated rate for other workers. The current floor for servers is 50% of the full hourly wage.
A measure under consideration in Kansas would raise servers’ minimum to $4.35, from the current $2.13.
In Hawaii, restaurateurs are leading the charge to change the state’s tip credit, which allows them to lower servers’ minimum pay by just a quarter an hour, to $7. They’re arguing that the island state’s laws shouldn’t be out of sync with the pay scale of the mainland, and cite the long and growing list of restaurants that have been shuttered there by the economic freefall.
If you ask me, both sides have compelling arguments, given the state of the economy. There just aren’t enough dollars going into restaurants, so employers and employees are trying to adjust the split in whatever way is most favorable to them. It’s understandable, just not easily resolved.
So let’s hope those public affairs officers find plenty of hopeful indications within the stimulus package. In the meantime, send ‘em a whole bottle of the good stuff. Charge it to the bankruptcy lawyers, whose industry seems to be the only one doing better in this environment.