I am a proud progressive Democrat, but I’ve never been more at odds with my party than I am right now in the debate over raising the minimum wage.
Don’t get me wrong: I want to see the minimum wage go up, and I believe some markets can handle a wage as high as $15. But I’m concerned that some Democrats — including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — have ignored the voices of tipped workers in their support for national legislation to create a $15 minimum wage without a tip credit.
There’s an alternative approach that’s gaining steam here in St. Paul, and I’m optimistic we can export it to other markets.
I am part of a large group of tipped workers in Minneapolis-St. Paul who are strong advocates for better working conditions in our community. We have personally supported raising the wage for those living in poverty, are excited to see things like “sick time” enter our market, and most of us were less excited to hear about a 28-day scheduling proposal. Many of these laudable goals put our community at a crossroads, trying to reconcile those progressive ideas with the pragmatic realities of the restaurant industry.
Those realities include tight profit margins and price-sensitive customers, both of which make higher labor costs difficult to manage. That goes double in Minnesota, which is one of seven states where tips aren’t credited toward our income. Rather than helping workers, it’s created an untenable situation where the highest-earning employees (e.g. servers and bartenders) receive a “raise” they don’t need, while leaving our brothers and sisters in the heart of the house (e.g. cooks and dishwashers) worse off.
The fight for a tip credit is a fight to right that wrong.
Sen. Klobuchar wants to export the Minnesota model nationwide, but that’s exactly the wrong approach. We have held rallies with hundreds of our peers, attended hearings, started petitions, and taken time away from our jobs, families and passions all in an effort to educate our legislators and the public about the need to recognize the tipping model in our unique industry.
It doesn’t have to be zero sum: As tipped workers fighting for our livelihoods, we have come up with a “blue state” compromise that may be the most progressive plan that any locale will have implemented in the country. We call it the Guaranteed Gratuity Supplemented Wage Program — or the Guaranteed Gratuity Wage, for short.
Here’s how it works: All tipped workers for whom the guaranteed wage applies (more on that below) would be guaranteed to earn more than the prevailing minimum wage. (The guaranteed wage for small business workers would be $18, and for large business workers it would be $20.) Any tipped worker who did not reach the guaranteed wage with their tips would instead receive the full prevailing minimum wage.
Now for some important caveats:
This program is specific to full service restaurants only: Coffee shop workers, nail technicians, etc, will not be included in this program.
In order to participate in the program, an employer’s non-tipped workers (i.e. the kitchen and support staff) will be brought up to the $15 minimum wage immediately. (This means they’ll earn $15/hr five years earlier than the current plan in St. Paul.)
Employers apply and pay for the right to be included in the program, so compliance will be paid for; and bad actors will be punished harshly, including the loss of eligibility for the program.
Our idea is picking up steam: Having been ignored by city officials in St. Paul and Minneapolis, we brought the Guaranteed Gratuity Wage as a resolution to the DFL caucuses and our neighbors agreed with us. It’s now on the list of DFL resolutions for 2019. This is a victory for the thousands of workers in our community who have begged for this progressive solution. This program does everything that the $15 minimum wage intends to do for the full-service restaurant community without enacting the inevitable harm it will cause my community if this solution is ignored.
Our idea will work best in states (and, more specifically, urban areas) where tips aren’t currently counted toward income. There may be better solutions for other areas. I’m particularly appreciative of Minnesota Reps. Collin Peterson and Angie Craig, who haven’t signed on to the same federal minimum wage bill that Sen. Klobuchar supports, and are instead looking for a more-thoughtful approach.
Opposing parties CAN find compromise. There IS a way to help one group of people without harming others. We CAN acknowledge the need for exemptions and continue to wave our progressive flag high.
So please, when you go and vote for new leaders at the city, state, and federal level, support leaders who support the workers and small businesses that make the city of St. Paul great, and help us set an example for the rest of the country.
Jennifer Schellenberg is a bartender in St. Paul and Minneapolis, President of Restaurant Workers of America, and on the board of the United States Bartenders Guild MN.