Battle lines are being drawn in Hartford over a proposed bill that would mandate tipped workers be paid the full state minimum wage.
Proponents say bartenders and servers — who earn about half of the minimum wage before tips — deserve to be paid a base full minimum wage, in addition to tips, to survive and pay their bills.
But opponents — primarily Connecticut restaurants and the 3,600-member Connecticut Restaurant Association — say that, if passed, the so-called One Fair Wage law would have the opposite effect. The groups argue the move would hurt not only bartenders and servers, who they say can make more than double the minimum wage with tips, but could also force eateries to cut staff or change their business model to include service charges.
Wait staff and bartenders in Connecticut currently earn a wage of $6.38 and $8.23 an hour, respectively, compared to the $15 per hour earned by all other minimum wage workers. The state’s minimum wage will increase to $15.69 per hour beginning Jan. 1.
Under state and federal law, if a worker’s salary — including tips — does not reach the state’s minimum wage, management must pay that worker the difference. But bill proponents claim that’s not happening, arguing that many workers either don’t know the law or are afraid to speak up.
The 16-member Labor and Public Employees Committee is set to discuss the wage bill during the 2024 short session, which runs from Feb. 7 to May. The initiative passed out of committee in 2023 but was not taken up by either chamber.
“This is really a question of do we care about workers in our community, and how they are able to live and raise their families,” said State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee. “What’s really sad is that, somehow, worker issues have become labeled as partisan issues. We should think about the fact that, when we have workers in our cities and our towns that are making sub-minimum wage, that is something that hurts all of us, not just particular families, but it affects the entire community.”
Seven states — all located in the Midwest or western parts of the country — have abolished “tip credits” and instead pay hospitality workers that state’s minimum wage. Chicago and Washington, D.C., also recently implemented similar proposals, and New York and Massachusetts could pass similar laws next year.
Kushner, who noted that 100 restaurants in the state have dropped the tip credit on their own, said, “When you are paying a decent wage, that improves customer service and improves your ability to attract customers.”
Scott Dolch, president and CEO of the Connecticut Restaurant Association for the past five years, told CT Examiner that there have been a lot of mistruths over the issue.
“The messaging by [bill proponents] says people are making less than the minimum wage, but there are protections against that,” said Dolch, who argues that bill supporters have not presented specific examples of people getting paid less than minimum wage. “If it’s happening, I will be the first one to walk into that restaurant, because that would be a bad actor and that would affect our whole industry.”
Proponents have pushed back on Dolch’s claim, including Beverley Brakeman, a lobbyist for the One Fair Wage project. According to One Fair Wage — a national group funded by the left-leaning Alliance for a Just Society advocacy organization — Connecticut’s subminimum wage affects about 70,000 tipped workers.
“The subminimum wage is a legacy of slavery,” Brakeman said. “Most servers are people of color, particularly women.”
Brakeman told CT Examiner that “there is a lot of active organizing going on. There are a lot of restaurant workers who work really, really hard, and they are getting by on food stamps and public assistance. It’s an industry where, often, it’s the person’s only job, and if they can’t support their families, then what?”
One Fair Wage representatives shared the story of Angelo Garcia, who moved to Connecticut from Guatemala three years ago. The organization said some restaurants will prey on immigrants like Garcia and treat them unfairly.
Through a translator, Garcia told CT Examiner he has been treated “unjustly” and that he’s often made to feel “disposable. We are not treated right.”
Garcia, 24, has been a server in Connecticut for about a year, and started working this past month at a new South Norwalk eatery called Jacob’s Pickles.
Garcia said he is paid $15 an hour, but that the workload is not fair. He said he’s a server, but also washes dishes, does additional kitchen work and takes out trash. The restaurant could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
“It’s almost impossible to survive [financially],” said Garcia, who estimates he earns about $2,000 a month. Of that, he said, half goes toward renting a room in an apartment he shares with his mother and three others.
Saru Jayaraman, who is based in California, founded One Fair Wage in 2013.
“Connecticut is going to be in a lot of trouble if it doesn’t pass this,” Jayaraman said, suggesting the industry will suffer more staffing shortages.
But Dolch said his restaurant association’s polling and data shows the majority of workers want to keep the law the way it is in Connecticut.
According to 238 restaurants that provided data on tipped employees to the association in a March survey, Dolch said, the average server was paid $33 an hour and the average bartender earned $38 an hour. Eliminating the tip credit, he argued, would be bad for management and employees, claiming many smaller restaurants are already struggling to survive.
Mandating that all workers get the state minimum wage also means bartenders and servers could earn less money than they do now, Dolch said, and could lead to customers leaving fewer tips due to restaurants raising prices to accommodate the change.
State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, the ranking member of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, said the four Republicans on the committee were against the 2023 wage bill. And depending on the language of next year’s proposal, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if his colleagues once again voiced opposition.
If enacted, the wage bill would “hurt the [restaurant] industry as a whole,” he said.
Sampson said he has spoken to about 25 restaurant owners and workers in the state over the past year, and that most workers are in favor of the proposal until they hear the specifics.
“Their initial instinct is that they like the idea, but after you talk to them for a few minutes and discuss the potential outcomes, I think they realize that they will end up in a worse situation,” he said.
Sampson said he believes there’s an ulterior motive among many of the bill’s backers.
“I think, ultimately, this is all about unionization,” he said. “I think it’s about building a movement towards unionization. I think that’s what it’s really all about.”
With the exception of a few Starbucks locations in the state, Dolch said, the majority of restaurants he represents are non-union.
Jayaraman, however, said the time is right for the measure to pass in Connecticut.
“Before the pandemic, the [state and national] campaign was very difficult because of the money and power of the National Restaurant Association,” Jayaraman said. “But with the pandemic, everything has flipped in our favor because so many workers are refusing to work for these wages. We recently won in [Washington], D.C. and we won in Chicago. We are about to also win in Michigan. We are on a roll.”