Tipping point: State bills would equalize minimum wages for wait staffers, other workers

Jul 14, 2019 at 5:00 AM

Two bills filed in the state Legislature could raise the wages of thousands of waitstaff at restaurants across Massachusetts.

The “one fair wage” bills S.1082 and H.1617, sponsored by state Sen. Patricia D. Jehlen, D-Somerville, and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, would steadily equalize the minimum wage for tipped and non-tipped workers by 2027.

The current hourly wage for tipped employees is $4.35, while the minimum wage for non-tipped employees is $12. Legislation passed in 2018 was already on track to gradually raise each rate to $6.75 and $15, respectively, but the new proposals would go even further and do away with differences between tipped and non-tipped minimum wages.

More than 66,000 people work as waiters and waitresses in Massachusetts, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some restaurant managers in Worcester said bumping tipped worker wages to equal the non-tipped worker minimum wage would provide income stability and a living wage for all employees.

Redemption Rock Brewing Co. of Worcester already pays its workers more than $15 an hour. The brewery’s website states that since workers already receive a “fair wage,” all tips are donated to local charities.

Dani Babineau, chief executive officer of Redemption Rock, said the brewery has a “pretty lean staff” of eight employees that take on multiple roles in the business because they receive high wages. She said the brewery’s thorough and transparent hiring process allowed the owners to select employees that want to make a “career in the beer industry.”

“We put employees first, because we think happy employees will make happy customers, and I think part of that is making sure that those people don’t have to worry about paying their rent,” Ms. Babineau said.

She said restaurants operate under a tighter margin than breweries, which can cause businesses to undergo growing pains during an initial switch to one universal minimum wage.

“It’s hard for me not to think it’s a good thing, but I think it’s all in the length of time and how it’s implemented and what resources are given to people to help with that transition,” Ms. Babineau said.

Kevin Kirkness, taproom general manager at Redemption Rock, said he hopes a universal minimum wage would help restaurants find employees who are “invested in it as a passion.” But he said restaurants that operate under a low profit margin could suffer if the bills pass.

“I would be terrified to think that we would lose a lot of good restaurants that are just operating this way because they need those margins to be the way that they are,” Mr. Kirkness said.

Emily Kelley, a restaurant manager in Worcester who has worked in the restaurant industry for 17 years, said she supports equalizing the minimum wage because everyone deserves a “living wage that people can survive on.” But she said the switch will be complicated for restaurants that are used to paying workers the current wage.

“It’s difficult having an industry that is dependent upon paying a low wage and having the servers earn their own money for so many years that it is hard to change their entire business model and still be able to succeed under new circumstances,” Ms. Kelley said.

If the bills pass, Ms. Kelley said, paying workers an equal wage will become the norm over time and restaurants will learn how to make up the money for wages. Ms. Kelley, who previously worked in the restaurant industry in Seattle, where there is a universal minimum wage, said some Seattle restaurants tested many ways to garner the money to pay higher wages.

“It didn’t necessarily mean that restaurants closed due to it,” she said. “It’s just you saw a lot of back and forth of them trying out new approaches to see what works with it.”

Kim Kniskern, the owner of Miss Worcester Diner in Worcester, said her business would not be financially harmed by the implementation of a universal minimum wage. She said she supports a universal minimum wage because the waitstaff at her diner work hard.

“It would make the waitresses a lot happier, even though they are pretty happy here,” Ms. Kniskern said.

State Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, a co-sponsor of the House bill, said the bill, if passed, would help the economy in Worcester County because workers would have more money to spend locally.

“We are just trying to make sure that the most vulnerable folks, those folks that are working in kind of the lower wage hospitality industry, can make enough to be able to support themselves and their families,” she said.

When workers depend on tips, Ms. Higgins said, they are subject to harassment and often have to worry about how to present themselves and interact with customers. She said workers in lower-end restaurants are less likely to be tipped well and often live in poverty.

All restaurants in Massachusetts must compensate for a lack of tips after each employee’s shift if their total for the day does not reach minimum wage, according to Ms. Higgins. But she said many restaurants do not abide by this rule, and employees are often reluctant to speak up for fear of losing their jobs.

“We need to make sure that they are actually getting what they are entitled to, and this (bill) would be a much more transparent way to do so,” Ms. Higgins said.

State Rep. David LeBoeuf, D-Worcester, a co-sponsor of the House bill, said supporting workers and businesses should go hand in hand if the bills pass to ensure that restaurants can adapt to the new legislation.

“When you are helping workers, you can help businesses at the same time and find innovative programs to make sure that they are able to pay their workers well and not put them out of business,” Mr. LeBoeuf said.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, said as the restaurant industry flourishes in Worcester County, increasing the tipped worker wage would create a more positive working environment across the area and will help businesses succeed.

“The restaurant industry is thriving, and to require restaurants to pay just a little bit more for restaurant workers so they can earn a living wage, I think, is a very feasible proposal,” he said.

Opponents of the proposal warn that the change would create a burden for business owners and the cost could be passed on to consumers.

Deanna Connelly, who has worked as a waitress at Miss Worcester Diner for 16 years, said the bills would likely negatively impact her because she typically makes above minimum wage with her tips. She said customers may tip less if they know waitstaff already make minimum wage.

“We do so well with our tips and we work hard for that, to make that extra money, so just giving minimum wage automatically might decrease what we actually make,” Ms. Connelly said.

Steven Clark, the vice president of government affairs at the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said the organization opposes the legislation because several tipped workers across the state have contacted the organization with concerns about the bills. He said the passage of the bills would increase the labor costs at restaurants and result in a reduction of staff.

The current system, which guarantees tipped workers make at least the minimum wage every shift, is the most beneficial for the workers directly affected by the bills, Mr. Clark said.

“Employees want to make the most money that they can, and this situation allows them to do that,” he said.

State Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury, said he is waiting to hear more information from the bill’s testimony before making a decision about whether to support the bill. The bill could potentially raise menu item prices and deter customers from tipping, he said.

“I just don’t want to have us increasing the minimum wage thinking that it’s going to have a positive effect on the income of these people in the profession, and then all of a sudden it has an adverse effect, then we see them losing more money,” Mr. Moore said.

By Paige Morse, / Special to the Telegram & Gazette