In February, I introduced legislation in the Pennsylvania Senate to give the state’s low-wage earners a long overdue raise this year, next year and for years to come on a predictable and sustainable schedule. Pennsylvania hasn’t raised its minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) since 2006 or its subminimum wage for restaurant servers, bartenders and other tip-earners ($2.83) in more than two decades.
My Senate Bill 1044 and Sen. Art Haywood’s companion legislation, SB 1045, would lift tens of thousands of workers out of poverty-level wages, putting more spending power in the pockets of consumers while protecting business and employment across the Commonwealth.
On March 21, this publication printed a commentary by a $28 an hour waiter from Maine who organized a group that purports to protect tip-earners’ rights while fighting against “union-aligned interests that want to upend our industry.” The group recently branded itself Restaurant Workers of America, not to be confused with the Restaurant Workers Association, which supports the kind of measures that I and Sen. Haywood have proposed.
The author, Joshua Chaisson, seeks to preserve the hourly wage discrepancies endured by tip-earners, arguing that wage equality will cost them money. He attempts to discredit my legislation and a long-established workers’ advocacy non-profit, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC). But in misrepresenting verifiable data and academic research while repeatedly sourcing management-side blogs and anecdotal evidence, the author obscures the elephant in the room: he is not a typical restaurant server and is not helping mitigate the financial injustice faced by Pennsylvania’s 230,000 tip-earning hospitality industry workers.
Tip-earners nationally have a median wage including tips of about $10.22, according to a 2014 Economic Policy Institute study, compared to $16.48 for hourly workers in general. The median tipped worker makes just $21,257 in a year based on a 40-hour work week, barely above the federal poverty level for a family of three.
The same EPI report also provides stunning data about the working poor, including those in the hospitality industry. Almost 13 percent of tipped workers live in poverty, twice the rate of non-tipped workers, while about 46 percent of tip-earners rely on public benefits, compared to 35.5 percent for non-tipped. According to 2017 U.S. Department of Labor data, one in nine people who work in the “food service and drinking places” sector make below the federal minimum wage, compared with one in 167 for all other private-sector industries.
So no, my legislation would not “actually lead to a pay cut” for restaurant servers. And no, it is not “rare” for tip-earners to make less than prevailing minimum wage. Likewise, tip-earners cannot rely solely on their employers to make up the difference in such instances, although employers are legally required to do so.
The writer argues that restaurants would fail financially at the expense of countless lost jobs if forced to pay prevailing minimum wage. I don’t doubt that restaurants operate on slim profit margins, perhaps three to five percent, but nor do I doubt that 60 percent of all restaurants fail within their first three years. Therefore, it’s no surprise that some restaurants closed their doors in New York State after a statewide tipped-wage increase in 2016.
Chaisson’s column issues a stern warning to Pennsylvania legislators to “take note of what happened in Maine” last year when, he says, thousands of restaurant servers pressured lawmakers to reverse a minimum wage increase after 55 percent of voters had endorsed the raise in a statewide referendum. But the fact is, Mainers support raising the minimum wage and so do I.
Christine Tartaglione is a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania State Senate, representing the 2nd District since 1995. @SenTartaglione