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Restaurant workers rally to save their tips

RWA – Michigan recently gathered protestors to spread its message at the Capitol Building in Lansing

A recent ballot proposal hopes to raise the minimum wage in Michigan to $12 an hour while raising the tipped minimum wage yearly until phasing it out in 2022.

In a show of protest against the ballot initiative, restaurant workers came together and hosted a rally at the Capitol Building in Lansing.

The group was put together by Restaurant Workers of America, which recently established a Michigan branch to fight back.

“RWA’s mission, generally speaking, is to preserve and protect tipped income and restaurant jobs for workers in our community,” said Jennifer Schellenberg, president of RWA. “Rallying people from across the state is a tough act. We had people come from Traverse City, Detroit and all around the state.”

The major proponent of the ballot initiative is the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United). ROC United is a national group that is focused on raising the minimum wage for restaurant workers.

“It’s going to be really difficult fighting back against them. Especially since we’re a grassroots organization,” Schellenberg said. “We don’t have a lot of money, but we have a lot of people. Whereas our opposition, ROC, has millions of dollars.”

One way that RWA is going to help spread its message is through education.

“We’re trying to garner as much press as we can,” Schellenberg said. “It’s going to be a really tough climb. We have to bring a really strong campaign of education in our own community and the general public.”

While rallying at the Capitol Building, many protestors had hoped for the chance to speak with their local elected officials. However, that plan was cut short.

“The end goal was to talk to legislators but they froze the floor about five or ten minutes after we got there,” Schellenberg said. “So we didn’t get the chance to talk to all the representatives that we wanted to.”

The two legislators that RWA activists spoke with seemed interested in the group’s mission.

“My understanding was that they were supportive, and more than anything, inquisitive,” Schellenberg said. “We’re finding that a lot of legislators are curious about why restaurant workers don’t want this increase.”

According to Schellenberg, it’s hard for people who have never relied on tips to understand.

“People who aren’t immersed in the restaurant industry don’t understand the dynamics, the business model, and they certainly don’t understand the worker’s preferences,” Schellenberg said. “A lot of people don’t understand that we prefer a tipped income compared to a higher base wage.”

One of the bartenders who believes in RWA’s mission is Courtney Baylis.

“I think it’s a disastrous ballot initiative. We earn tips because we give good service and because we’re good at our jobs,” Baylis said. “Taking away the tip credit could lead to businesses practicing no tipping policies. In that case, many bartenders and servers will actually make far less money than they do now.”

Aside from worrying about making less money, restaurant workers are also worried about being out of a job altogether.

“I work for a brand new small business that I would love to see continue to thrive in the future,” Baylis said. “Removing the tip credit will increase costs for the business, especially for the small ones, and make it harder to survive.”

“I not only attended the rally to save my tips, but also to protect the business I work for,” Baylis added.

And according to MLBA Executive Director Scott Ellis, Baylis hit the nail on the head.

“Doing away with the tipped minimum wage and requiring small businesses to pay servers $12 an hour would have a serious impact on the hospitality industry in Michigan,” Ellis said. “From a fiscal standpoint, it’s a completely irresponsible move.”

Ellis gave the following example to prove just how great of an impact this change would make:

If a small establishment employs 10 part-time servers who each work 30 hours per week, that business may pay around $55,000 per year in wages under the current tipped minimum wage. If the ballot proposal passes, that same bar or restaurant would be forced to pay about $187,000 in wages per year — which creates a $132,000 offset that the businessowner would have to make up for.

Currently, servers can never make less than the minimum wage. If it’s a slow day and tips aren’t coming in, a server’s employer must pay the difference between the tipped minimum wage (3.52/hr.) and the regular minimum wage (9.25/hr.). But on busy nights, when servers are making much more than the minimum wage in tips, the restaurant is required to pay them the minimum tipped wage.

“Good servers understand that good service equals great tips,” Ellis said. “And every good server I’ve talked to doesn’t want to see the end of tipping practices for a higher base wage.”

Despite backlash from restaurant workers throughout the state, it is likely that this initiative will reach the required number of valid signatures to make the November ballot. Which is why groups like RWA and people like Schellenberg are going to continue to educate the public on this issue before they hit the polls and vote in the fall.

“If this proposal passes, you’ll see layoffs, establishments ending tipping practices, higher food prices, more automation, fewer new bars and restaurants opening and, of course, many bars and restaurants shutting their doors,” Ellis said. “This is actually the worst thing imaginable for hospitality workers in our state.”