In February, I introduced legislation in the Pennsylvania Senate to give the state’s low-wage earners a long-overdue raise this 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 sub-minimum wage for restaurant servers and other tip-earners ($2.83 an hour) in more than two decades.
Senate Bill 1044 and Sen. Art Haywood’s companion legislation, S,B, 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.
You published a March 21 commentary by Joshua Chaisson, a waiter in Maine who earns $28 an hour in wages and tips. He has organized a group that purports to protect tip-earners’ rights. 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.
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 nonprofit, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC). But in misrepresenting verifiable data and academic research while repeatedly sourcing management-side blogs and anecdotal evidence, he 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 with $16.48 for hourly workers in general. The median tipped worker makes just $21,257 a year based on a 40-hour work week, barely above the federal poverty level for a family of three.
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 with 35.5 percent for the non-tipped. According to 2017 U.S. Department of Labor data, one in nine people who work in “food service and drinking places” 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, as Chaisson claims. And no, it is not “rare” for tip-earners to make less than the prevailing minimum wage.
Chaisson cites a management blog to argue that restaurants would fail financially at the expense of countless lost jobs if forced to pay the prevailing minimum wage. I don’t doubt that restaurants operate on slim profit margins, or that 60 percent of new restaurants fail within their first three years. Therefore, it’s no surprise that many restaurants closed their doors in New York after a statewide tipped-wage increase in 2016. But Chaisson also cites a Forbes opinion column that acknowledges that even with those New York business failures, employment in the state’s full-service restaurant industry grew in 2016.
Additional research is available concerning the impact of minimum-wage increases in the California bay area. A 2017 Harvard Business study, which concluded restaurants closed at a higher rate after municipalities raised their minimum wages locally, reinforced the need for minimum wage uniformity across all borders. My legislation would promote uniformity.
Ominously, Chaisson’s commentary issued a stern warning to Pennsylvania legislators to “take note of what happened in Maine” last year after restaurant servers pressured lawmakers to reverse a minimum-wage increase after 55 percent of voters had endorsed the raise in a referendum. But the fact is, Mainers supported raising the minimum wage, and so do I.
State Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione represents Pennsylvania’s Second District.