Philly is about to get a lot less hospitable for the hospitality industry. At least, that’s what will happen if Pennsylvania State Sen. Christine Tartaglione has her way with a bill that would raise the state’s tipped minimum wage by more than 200 percent.
The legislation in question is Senate Bill 1044, and it would raise Pennsylvania’s tipped minimum wage for servers from $2.83 to $9 an hour. It might seem odd that employees would not support higher wages for themselves, but as a long-time restaurant server, I can tell you that the senator’s “raise” would actually lead to a pay cut. I worked with thousands of servers in Maine (where I live) to educate legislators and defeat a similar effort there. Servers in Pennsylvania need to do the same.
For those who haven’t worked as a server, here’s a primer on how we’re paid: In Pennsylvania, servers are paid a base wage of $2.83 per hour. While this seems extremely low, it’s really not. If our hourly pay in tips doesn’t equal the minimum wage, our employer is required by law to make up that difference. This is rare; servers are paid very generously in tips, and most earn far more than the minimum wage in tips and base pay. (I earn roughly $28 an hour with tips.)
To put it simply, I’m always guaranteed the minimum wage — but the full-service-restaurant profession enables me to earn much more than that.
Rather than giving servers a raise, the senator’s proposal would turn them into employees earning just above minimum wage.
Here’s why: The restaurant industry works on razor-thin profit margins—usually between 3 and 5 percent. A dramatic increase in labor costs for tipped employees forces one of a few bad options; either raise price on customers (who aren’t going to like it), or find a way to adapt to the higher labor costs. In recent years, that’s meant reducing staff, eliminating tipping, or closing altogether.
New York is an example of a tipped wage hike gone wrong. After the mandate took effect in late 2015, many restaurants were forced out of business and the Empire State experienced its first year of a decline in the number of restaurants since the Great Recession. In the Bay Area, a study from Harvard Business School tied a similar hike in labor costs for tipped employees to an increased incidence of restaurant closures.
Oddly enough, servers were never the ones who were asking for the tipped wage increase. The real push was from a group called the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC). ROC believes that all servers deserve “one fair wage” and that tips only result in servers having to tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers in order to receive a tip. In fact, ROC’s own research doesn’t back up that second claim.
Pennsylvania legislators who hear from ROC should take note of what happened in Maine. Thousands of servers from across the state organized to push back against a ROC-led effort to dramatically raise the tipped wage. We were successful, gaining support from Republicans and Democrats who understood the harm that ROC’s proposal would cause to our industry (and to us).
When ROC first came to Maine, I learned that it doesn’t speak for me or most restaurant servers, which is why we’ve come together to form the Restaurant Workers of America (RWA), an employee advocacy organization dedicated to the preservation of tip income. We’re fighting back against union-aligned interests that want to upend our industry. So I’m asking Sen. Tartaglione and supporters of her bill to consider speaking with servers in Pennsylvania, asking them how the tipped wage increase would affect their livelihoods and the well-being of their favorite restaurants.
Most servers aren’t looking for their help — and they don’t need to be saved.
Joshua Chaisson is the founder of Restaurant Workers of America.