Tipped workers demand higher base wage

In the wake of Connecticut’s historic legislation, which will raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017, tipped workers are getting a smaller piece of the pie than in years past.

Tipped workers historically earned close to 70 percent of the full minimum wage, but due to pressure from the restaurant lobby, last year’s minimum wage increase lowered that proportion to 63.2 percent. Even though the minimum wage went up from $8.25 to $9 in 2013, tipped workers’ minimum wage stayed frozen at $5.69 per hour. The Connecticut Restaurant Association contended that increasing minimum wage for tipped workers would hurt businesses, and that tipped workers often make well above minimum wage already. By law, employers must make up the difference if a tipped worker does not receive minimum wage when wages and tips are combined.

Though this year’s minimum wage increase will give tipped workers a raise, it will stay at the 63.2 percent proportion that was established last year, which is not enough for low-wage workers struggling to make ends meet, according to a coalition of activists lobbying for a restoration of the proportion to 70 percent.

“A lot of people saw what happened last year as an injustice,” said Ana Maria Rivera, an affiliate of the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, which is heading the coalition to raise tipped workers’ wages. “I think that this is a workforce that has been ignored — they’re not unionized and their struggles largely get overlooked.”

SB 60, the bill that will raise the proportion to 70 percent, has already made it through the Labor and Public Employees Committee. CIRA, along with the Working Families Party and several unions, is attempting to pass the bill by the end of legislative session, which comes at the beginning of May.

Luis Luna, a tipped worker and labor advocate, has been working with CIRA to organize workers to advocate for themselves and explain the problems associated with relying primarily on tips. Rivera said such jobs are characterized by an “unpredictability” from one pay period to the next.

“My income fluctuates from week to week; what don’t fluctuate are my bills,” Luna said.

SB 60, if passed, will also prohibit employers from skimming and deducting credit card fees from servers’ tips, an issue that workers raised at a public hearing in the capitol held in February, which Yale students and New Haven activists attended.

“Most customers believe that when they leave a tip, it goes directly the server,” said Swapna Reddy LAW ’16, who has worked on the campaign through the Law School’s Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic. “But, in Connecticut there’s no part of the labor code that specifies that tips are property of the employee.“

One tipped worker, Victor Ocaña, told the News in February that his catering company collects the servers’ gratuities and pays them a flat hourly tip credit of seven dollars, pocketing the difference to boost profits.

Reddy said she hopes to eventually strengthen the language in SB 60 to ensure that tips become the express property of servers.

Even so, Rivera said enforcing any tipped wage law is and will continue to be difficult. She said she has heard several anecdotes from workers that employers often do not make up the difference when tips fail to close the gap between their minimum wage and full minimum wage.

State Representative Peter Tercyak, co-chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, said that SB 60 will only pass with continued lobbying of lawmakers in Hartford.

For tipped workers earning minimum wage, the increase will amount to 6.8 percent of the minimum wage over the course of the next three years.

“It’s really not that generous for people who spend every penny they make and never have enough to pay the bills anyway,” he said.

The restaurant industry has so far been successful in keeping tipped workers’ base wage low, Rivera said, partly because many people hold misconceptions that tipped workers are usually young and with no one to support.

According to a report published by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the median age of tipped workers is 31. Over two thirds of them are women, and nearly half of those who have children are single mothers. However, over 20 percent of tipped restaurant workers live under the poverty line, three times the rate of the national workforce.

Tercyak also cited the fact that seven states — all west of the Mississippi — require that employers pay tipped workers the full minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13.

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