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Governor Ned Lamont held a public hearing on Thursday to address fair pay and representation for tipped workers — an issue found at the end of the legislative session.

In Connecticut, and in many other states, workers who frequently earn tips can legally be paid less than the minimum wage — which is now $11. Because these workers earn a substantial portion of their income from tips, politicians on both sides of the aisle have yet to contest the minimum wage for tipped workers, which is to be significantly lower than the minimum wage for all other members of the job market. Currently, the rate is $6.38 per hour.

Yet tip workers do perform some tasks — such as washing dishes or cleaning — that aren’t compensated with tips. According to Connecticut law, tipped workers are required to spend at least 80 percent of their time on the job engaged in activities that receive tips.

However, in his testimony on Thursday at the capitol, Senate Majority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said this system has led to a number of lawsuits against restaurants in which workers claim that they are not being fairly compensated. Fasano added that the state law often conflicts guidelines specified by Department of Labor. The financial impact of these lawsuits could be devastating to many restaurants, Fasano said.

“The discrepancy in state regulations and official Department of Labor guidance regarding the ‘80/20’ rule is putting restaurants at risk of significant financial penalties and therefore threatening the existence of hundreds of jobs across our state as well as the entire restaurant wage system that allows employees to earn significantly more than the minimum wage.” Fasano said.

Concerns surrounding minimum wage for tipped workers were brought to a head  at the end of the previous legislative session when Lamont vetoed a bill that passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously.

Although the bill passed with overwhelming support, it contained a provision that was inserted at the very last minute in the process and many lawmakers were unaware of, Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Easton, said. The provision, which someone in the Governor’s office noticed, would have retroactively limited workers abilities to sue their employers for lost wages related to the 80 percent tipped labor rule and resolved many of the current lawsuits.

Although Lamont vetoed that bill, he said he still wanted to find a solution that would allow workers to earn back lost compensation for time they spend engaging in non-tip work. He also emphasized that it’s important to avoid penalizing restaurants that believed they were treating their workers fairly and legally.

Lamont drafted a new piece of legislation that allows workers to sue while also limiting the amount of money restaurants must compensate as a result of lawsuits. It also requires the Department of Labor to write new regulations to eliminate any discrepancies with state regulations. Lamont is expected to call a special session of the legislature to vote on his proposal in a near future.

“The legislative proposal that I have put forward through our collaborative discussions strikes the appropriate balance by eliminating double damages awards against restaurant owners who can provide they acted in good faith by relying reasonably on written guidance from the prior administration’s Department of Labor.” Governor Lamont said in a written statement to the News.

Still, not everyone in Hartford views the proposal favorably. Hughes told the News that the proposal is not a compromise but rather a slightly watered down version of the bill that Governor vetoed.

She said she is concerned that if the law passes, it would eliminate vital protections for tipped workers, who are some of the most vulnerable in the economy considering that they are not unionized. She doesn’t believe it’s hard for restaurants to track how much time their employers spend in non-tipped work, Hughes said.

“The so-called compromise is really just more protections for employers against the suits for wage theft and not protection for the most vulnerable workers in our whole economic ecosystem.” Hughes told the News in an interview.

Hughes added that Connecticut should consider increasing its tipped minimum wage, or at least indexing it to the minimum wage which is slated to increase to $15 an hour by 2023.

According to the National Restaurant Association, there are 115,200 eating-and-drinking place jobs in Connecticut.

 

Emmett Shell | emmett.shell@yale.edu