It has already happened in seven states. Now, it could happen in Massachusetts as well: the passage of a standard minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers, especially those in the food service industry.
sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) has been championing a bill that would increase the wages paid to food service workers to the state’s current $14.25-an-hour, on par with all other workers in the state, eliminating the differential due to the country’s tipping economy.
Currently, service workers in the restaurant industry are paid $6.15 an hour, and employers claim the shortfall is made up through tips.
“I feel hopeful today,” Jehlen said at a rally on the State House steps Wednesday, June 15. The bill she has been championing through several sessions of the state legislature was viewed favorably by the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development that she chairs and is now being vetted by the House Ways and Means Committee.
May become law by year’s end
Proponents are confident the bill could become law before the year’s end.
She noted that the entire labor force is in transition; the restaurant industry is in transition; and what better time, she asked, is there to make these changes?
“People are finding they have a right to be paid for their labor,” Jehlen said, recognizing that many employees are forming unions; that unionization (along with good legislation and optimism) are the key to economic equity and justice. She said that the economy is suffering, not from a shortage of labor, rather it’s the lack of a fare wage, and a shortage of well-paying jobs.
Already Alaska ($10.34), California ($14 & $15), Guam ($8.75), Minnesota ($8.42 & $10.33), Nevada ($9.75), Oregon ($12.75) and Washington ($14.49) have enacted One Fair Wage legislation. Wage differences in California and Minnesota reflect adjustments for different size businesses and/or whether workers access benefits.
Massachusetts could be next.
Hundreds of restaurants are already paying workers the full state minimum: including Big Dipper Hospitality Group with five restaurants, three based in Cambridge.
Rachel Miller Munzer, one of the group owners, said the restaurants started paying minimum wage during the COVID-19 pandemic saying it was a question of equity for their workers.
“Tipping,” said Saru Jayaraman, president and organizer of One Fair Wage who attended the Wednesday rally, “is a mutation.”
The Berkeley-based academic said the practice originated in Europe and was designed as a bonus on top of a fair wage, compensation for extraordinary service. It was mutated in the United States as a way to avoid paying food service workers, mostly freed Black slaves.
Tipping: a vestige of slavery
“Black workers worked for free,” Jayaraman said, earning only what patrons deemed they wanted to pay as a tip. Today, it’s mostly women, and people who identify as of color, who are affected by the lower minimum wage. The sub-minimum wage leads to a sub-human existence, she said.
It’s a matter of survival, according to Ari Fertig, of the New England Jewish Labor Committee, who explained that the committee is in support of the measure as it aligns with traditional Jewish values and history.
“We can’t continue to leave tipped workers behind,” Fertig said.
In her speech, Jayaraman noted that more than one million workers left the restaurant industry due to the pandemic, and the Massachusetts restaurant industry is working at 40% capacity.
“At this rate of exodus, the Massachusetts restaurant industry will not survive,” Jayaraman said. “Workers are fed up!”
Marie Billiel of Quincy, a member/organizer with One Fair Wage, told the gathered crowd she has been working in the restaurant industry since she was a teenager, more than 16 years. While she has seen increases in her minimum wage, up from $2.63 when she first started, the $6.15 is not enough.
And specifically, not enough in light of the harassment she has encountered; as a young server working in a college town, and as an experienced server working through the pandemic. Being a tipped employee means her daily wage can be held hostage by patrons, co-workers, managers and owners.
Workers’ salaries can be held hostage
“I am at the mercy of everyone in the restaurant,” Billiel said: The patron who demands a smile, and during COVID-19, the removal of a mask “to see your cute face.” The cook who traps her in the walk-in freezer, if rebuffed, can mangle the meals she delivers to customers. The owner/manager who, if rebuffed, schedules her for dead shifts, or exclusively to tables in less trafficked areas of the restaurant.
“We need to break this cycle of harassment and public subsidy of the restaurant business,” Billiel said.
In states where tipping is what it was originally intended to be — a bonus on top of a living wage — harassment of restaurant workers fell by 50%, according to One Fair Wage.
The proposed bill (S .1213/H .1971) would raise the minimum wage every year (starting with raising it to $6.45, $7.95, $9.45, $10.95, $12.45, $13.95) from its enactment through 2027 at which time it would equal the state’s minimum wage bringing tipped workers into accord with the rest of Massachusetts’ workforce.
In doing so, it would bring thousands of workers out of poverty, reduce sexual harassment in the workplace, and decrease the wage gap between male and female tipped workers, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.
In the seven states that have eliminated the tipped minimum wage, the poverty rate among tipped workers is lower by one fifth. Harassment rates were also halved in areas that pay tipped servers a full minimum wage.
These states were also projected to experience the largest increase in restaurant sales, at 5.1% growth, compared to 4.24% in subminimum wage states, according to the Coalition. This can be attributed to increased productivity, reduced turnover rates, and creating local stimulus in the economy.
“This proves that a policy change can affect real change,” Billiel said.