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Can the Midterm Elections Actually Fix Broken Restaurant Wages?

Two states will vote on minimum wage proposals, but the road to November has been riddled with obstacles

Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

Entering the feverish final weeks leading up to the November midterm elections, just about every candidate and measure feels reduced to a tribal partisan battle. Yet, one issue seems to increasingly be crossing party lines: minimum wage. This fall, voters in two states — Missouri and Arkansas — will decide whether or not to raise their respective state minimum wages. Voters in other states like Massachusetts and Michigan approved similar measures, only to be blocked or circumvented by their respective representatives.

But across the country, ballot initiatives and campaigns leading into the midterms could mean sweeping changes for hourly workers, including many in the restaurant industry.

Two state minimum wage measures make the ballot

Voters in Missouri and Arkansas will vote on minimum wage measures November 6. Missouri Proposition B would gradually increase the state’s standard minimum wage from $7.85 per hour to $12 per hour by 2023. Arkansas Issue 5 aims to increase wages from $8.50 an hour to $11 an hour by 2021. Neither proposals will affect tipped workers, though the issues could have a significant impact on restaurant owners with non-tipped, hourly employees.

The growing support for raising the minimum wage in two traditionally red states might seem surprising to some, but it’s perhaps more indicative of the public’s growing concerns about wage stagnation. In spite of the country’s positive economic outlook, workers aren’t necessarily earning more money; in some cases, accounting for inflation, they’re earning significantly less.

That makes the wage issue more important to American workers, regardless of party. “With your average voters, we see it as a nonpartisan issue that has got support across the board from people from all different kinds of political ideology,” says Kristin Foster, campaign manager for Arkansans for a Fair Wage. While one group Arkansans for a Strong Economy has come out against Issue 5, Foster says the campaign gathered more than 84,000 voter signatures for the petition, and has experienced growing support from local businesses such as Trio’s Restaurant in Little Rock.

In the Missouri fight, organizers have rallied the support of more than 450 local businesses, including outspoken companies from the food and beverage industry: 4 Hands Brewing Co. in St. Louis, the Rieger in Kansas City, Bambino’s Cafe in Springfield, and Mokaska Coffee Company in St. Joseph.

Alissa Barron-Menza, vice president for the non-partisan group Businesses for a Fair Minimum Wage, says there’s a “strong business and economic case for raising the state’s minimum wage.” Business leaders, Barron-Menza says, see higher wages as an opportunity to increase consumer spending in the state and reduce employee turnover, a notorious problem in the hospitality industry.

In the restaurant industry, advocates also believe that gradually raising the minimum wage will boost productivity, improve customer service, and help level the the playing field between companies that don’t offer living wages and those that do. “If [businesses] are already voluntarily going above the minimum wage and trying to pay a more livable wage, but they’re subsidizing their low-paying competitors through the taxpayer-funded social safety net, they’re paying twice,” Barron-Menza says. “It’s bad for business when folks aren’t making enough to make ends meet.”

Hard-fought battles with mixed results

Throughout 2018, organizations like non-profit labor group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), the Sixteen Thirty Fund, the Fairness Project, and the National Employment Law Project have kept minimum wage and tipped minimum wage increases on the minds of many American voters. This year, the ROC sponsored “One Fair Wage” ballot measures — which advocate for raising the standard minimum wage and eliminating the tipped minimum wagein Michigan, Washington D.C., and New York. States like Massachusetts and Hawaii debated their own bills and proposals on hourly wages. Officials in St. Paul, Minnesota are also considering a $15 minimum wage proposal; whether the tipped credit will also be phased out is still under discussion.

There have been varying degrees of success. In the cases of Michigan and Massachusetts, supporters collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to get the issues onto the November ballot, only to see them adopted by state legislatures in a way that circumvented voters. In Massachusetts, the state legislature quickly pushed through a “grand bargain” bill that will gradually increase the standard minimum wage to $15 over by 2023, but fell short of eliminating the tipped minimum wage for servers — one of the main goals of organizers Raise Up Massachusetts. The legislative compromise did include a wage increase from $3.75 to $6.75 for tipped workers over the same amount of time, but still fell short of the ballot measure’s call for $9 per hour. In Michigan, the Republican-held state legislature took up the minimum wage proposal as part of what is widely believed to be a effort to “gut” the bill through amendments in a lame duck session.

Meanwhile, D.C. voters narrowly approved a tipped minimum wage measure known as Initiative 77 in June, but then witnessed the new rule get struck down by the D.C. City Council on October 16. New York’s incumbent gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo is reportedly still mulling over whether to eliminate the tipped credit in his state, though representatives for the ROC tell Eater they’re expecting a decision soon.

The road ahead for minimum wage fights

For ROC cofounder and director Saru Jayaraman, the fight for more equitable restaurant employee pay is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. The ROC began introducing One Fair Wage legislation in multiple states beginning in 2014, addressing both the standard minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage with varied success.

Within the past year, Jayaraman says the organization has also received more support and attention than ever for One Fair Wage as a result of the #Metoo and Time’s Up movements. More frequent attention from media lead to more public discussions about tip culture’s connection with high rates of sexual harassment. (Approximately 37 percent of all complaints made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission involve restaurants, and according to the ROC, roughly 78 percent of restaurant workers have been harassed at one time.)

But there have been major setbacks in recent months. One year after Maine voters approved One Fair Wage, the state legislature reinstated tipping due in part to pushback from an alleged astroturf group funded by restaurant lobbyists called the Restaurant Workers of America. Opposition from the RWA and the powerful National Restaurant Association lobby were effective in fueling resistance from legislators. “We are up against the most well-funded opposition on the key issue they care about the most, which is their ability to not pay their own workers,” Jayaraman says of the NRA.

In Michigan, where a Republican-dominated legislature pre-empted the minimum wage ballot measure in September, the ROC is still hopeful that the state could begin to eliminate tipping. State Republicans prevented voters from making the decision in November by taking up the measure — a move that is viewed partially as an effort to stymie an issue that might fuel higher Democratic voter turnout in the short term.

“Why did they adopt a law? Not because they actually want to raise the minimum wage; because they know it will win and they know it will drive people to the polls,” Jayaraman says. In the long term, analysts believe the legislature will move to strip the Michigan wage bill of one of its key components: the gradual elimination of the tipped minimum wage. “Tea Party Republicans tripled wages for waitresses, passed One Fair Wage in the state of Michigan, making Michigan ahead of New York the eighth state to eliminate the sub minimum wage,” Jayaraman says. “And, of course, there’s going to be an attempt to gut it, but we have a really good, solid both legal case and campaign to make sure that they don’t.”

Throughout the recent wage fights, the ROC has been learning and getting better at delivering its message about the need to end tip credits. “The lesson [from recent campaigns] is, this is an overwhelmingly popular issue when you take it to the public and educate the public and educate workers on these issues, they’re overwhelmingly, universally in favor of it,” Jayaraman says. The work on increasing wages for tipped and non-tipped minimum wages workers across the nation will continue even after the midterms: ROC plans to introduce new legislation in a dozen states in 2019.

Brenna Houck is the editor of Eater Detroit and an reporter. Jay Bendt is an editorial and book illustrator based out of the Midwest.
Editor: Erin DeJesus