Saru Jayaraman took a red-eye from California, arriving in Washington D.C. in time to meet Thursday morning with members of Congress. By midday, she was in Hartford, testifying before the Connecticut General Assembly.
Jayaraman, 47, a Berkeley professor and Yale law graduate, is in demand as labor’s best-known advocate for ending the sub-minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers, an issue approaching an inflection point.
Connecticut is one of 13 states considering applying the minimum wage to restaurants, ending a special status that reaches back to the origins of the federal minimum wage in 1938. Seven states have ended their sub-minimum wage.
“We are winning. We are winning across the country,” she told the Labor and Public Employees Committee. “We know Connecticut can lead on this issue, and, in fact, you have to. You’ve already lost a 10th of your [restaurant] workforce.”
Jayaraman insists she is trying to save the industry from itself, an assertion accepted by a minority of restaurateurs who voluntarily are paying the full minimum wage and are scoffed at by the National Restaurant Association.
The industry insists that paying the full minimum wage would be ruinous, coming off three years of trying to cope with the disruptions of COVID-19 and an exodus of workers from the service industry.
But Jayamaran, who leads the advocacy group One Fair Wage, said that exodus is rationale for accepting the minimum wage as a stabilizing force in an unstable time.
“The only thing that is going to bring them back is the guarantee of an actual livable wage,” she said.
California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana, Alaska and Minnesota have long required that restaurants pay the minimum wage. Those states have higher restaurant growth rates and tipping averages than Connecticut, according to One Fair Wage.
Her surveys found 100 Connecticut restaurants have made the change. On Friday morning, Jayamaran will join seven lawmakers as servers for an hour at the Blue Plate Kitchen in West Hartford to publicize the pending legislation, Senate Bill 1177.
“The market is moving in this direction,” Jayamaran said in an interview between meetings with the governor’s chief of staff and lawmakers. “You know, it’s not just an inflection point. This is now the inevitable future of this industry.”
Scott Dolch, the executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, begs to differ. He said 200 full-service restaurants in the state responded to his survey, saying tips and the sub-minimum wage produced hourly incomes of $33 for wait staff and $38 for bartenders.
Connecticut’s minimum wage will go to $15 on June 1, but the minimums for tipped workers will stay where they’ve been for four years: $6.38 for wait staff and $8.23 for bartenders.
By law, restaurants are required to pay the difference on days when tips fall short of the minimum wage. The reality, according to Jayaraman and others, is that compliance is poor.
The last enforcement push, which came during the Obama administration, found a compliance rate of 16%. Jayaraman said the administration concluded that the law was largely unenforceable.
The two-tiered wages also carry another complication: Staff who make $6.38 while waiting tables are supposed to get the full minimum wage when performing other duties, such as prepping a restaurant for opening or cleaning after closing.
Restaurant owners say the status quo is working.
“On average, our servers currently make approximately $29 per hour, and our bartender makes approximately $31 per hour,” said Keith Beaulieu, owner of the Main Pub in Manchester. “Those hourly averages include their tipped wage, plus tips. If the bill under consideration becomes law, my average annual payroll would increase by $135,821.68.”
He said he generally employs a staff of between 35 and 40.
“Many Connecticut restaurants have made no profit the past three years with the COVID restrictions and now high wages, high food and energy costs, high packaging costs,” said Joseph Addonizio, owner of Saybrook Fish House of Canton. “For many of us having to potentially pay servers more money would be the final straw. Please leave tipped wages exactly where they are.”
Proponents of the bill cast it as addressing social justice.
Of the 70,000 tipped workers in Connecticut, they said 70% are women and 36% are people of color. Jayaraman said the sexual harassment of waitresses is 50% lower at restaurants where staff is paid the full minimum wage and are not as reliant on tips.
The reliance on tips instead of wages has a racist history, she said. After Emancipation, freed slaves in service jobs, such as porters on rail cars, were forced to rely more on tips than wages.
One Fair Wage calls the sub-minimum wage “a direct legacy of slavery.”
The Labor and Public Employees Committee also is considering House Bill 6859, which would require retailers, restaurants, hotels and nursing homes to offer predictable schedules to hourly employees.
It also would apply to smaller businesses that are franchisees of larger companies. The bill would require schedules to be posted two weeks in advance. A similar measure passed the Senate last year, but it did not come to a vote in the House.
Oregon and several cities have predictable schedule laws or ordinances.