What tipped workers should know about the Fight for $15
Whenever I see people marching with Fight for $15 advocates who are advancing the platform for increasing the Mass minimum wage, I smile and hold up a fist.
Absolutely, I think. Nobody can get by in this town on $11 an hour.
And then I remember that, as a bartender, I make $3.75 an hour, and that every single conversation about raising the state minimum wage has excluded people who work for tips. Every. Single. One. (We went from $3.35 to $3.75 last year, but come now, 40 cents?)
The latest step being taken by Raise Up Massachusetts, a grassroots coalition of community organizations dedicated to ensuring that the Commonwealth’s economy works for all residents, is battling not only to increase the state minimum wage but folding increased wages for tipped workers into the measure they hope to land on ballots in the 2018 November elections.
“Tipped workers have been left out of this equation too many times,” says Rachel Collins, a member of Raise Up Massachusetts, the Boston chapter of the Restaurant Opportunity Center, and a chef at Juliet in Somerville.
“Enough is enough.”
Political allegiances aside, it’s impossible to ignore that the malodorous cloud surrounding the issues of minimum wage (tipped or otherwise) and cost of living in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville has become toxic: Huge portions of the city populations are struggling to breathe.
“Wages stopped keeping up with job productivity in 1973,” said Pablo Ruiz, director of SEIU Community Action and state field director for Raise Up’s last ballot campaign in 2014, which effectively pushed the state minimum wage from $7.25 to its current $11/hour.
Ruiz continued: “Had wages kept up with productivity, with the expectations of the job, minimum wage would today be $18.19 [an hour]. Had we seen the same kind of wage increase as the top earners in the country, if wages had kept up with CEO compensation, minimum wage would be $119 an hour.”
I won’t beat you over the head with stats about the 1 percent. But here is what you need to know about the relevant petitions for which activists and organizers are currently gathering signatures—from what they support, to why they matter, to where you can sign and how to get involved. The first two major worker equality measures that Raise Up is advocating for:
- Increase the state minimum wage to $15 from $11 by raising it $1 a year for four years.
- Increase the state tipped minimum wage from $3.75 (33 percent of the state minimum) until it reaches 60 percent of the state minimum in 2022. This will increase the tipped minimum wage in Massachusetts to $9 an hour.
Increasing minimum wage, even the tipped minimum wage, ought to be a no-brainer. The biggest opponents to such increases are, obviously, businesses, small businesses, and in relation to the tipped minimum specifically, restaurants. Not all of them, though. To combat some of that initial pushback, Katrina Jazayeri, co-owner of Juliet—one of the only local restaurants that operates without gratuity and therefore without a tipped minimum wage—is one of the lead signatories (along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren).
“We’re the group of people, business owners, who should be against this,” Jazayeri said. “But it never crossed our minds. We’re excited to be proof of concept of a new way of doing things. This benefits all of us, employees, ownership, going out to our vendors.”
She continued: “This isn’t an imposition, this is the way business should be done.”
According to Ruiz, increasing base pay reduces turnover and training time, increases productivity and morale, and can be covered by increasing menu prices by a measly two percent. Remember that story about how Delta Airlines saved $40,000 by eliminating a single olive from every salad they served during in-flight meals? Yeah, it’s like that.
The second and third biggest arguments against raising the minimum wage are that minimum wage jobs are held by people with minimal skills—teenagers new to the workforce, college students simply working part time to help cover rent—and that the fight to raise the minimum wage has nothing to do with you unless, in fact, you yourself make minimum wage.
Both of these, according to Ruiz and Raise Up, are equally bogus.
“Over 60 percent of people earning minimum wage work full time, most of them are adults, and 41 percent of them have families,” Ruiz said.
As for people who are not making minimum wage… If you’re making $15 an hour right now as an EMT (as many in Mass are), and minimum wage goes up to $15, guess what? You’re entitled to a raise. As organizers for various causes have noted, everybody wins when you lift up the bottom.
There is also a third measure that Raise Up is pushing: a paid family medical leave provision that, like Social Security and Medicaid, will be funded through small percentages of employee wages and matched by employers. Such a measure would allow all workers to take off up to 16 weeks a year, and be paid for it, in order to care for someone, like an aging relative or a new child (by birth or adoption).
The medical leave fund would pay for up to 26 paid weeks off per year for individuals to deal with personal sickness or injury. Right now, only 13 percent of the workforce has access to paid time off for medical leave—and not all of those people can afford to use it.
“Six years ago my wife was diagnosed with thyroid cancer,” Ruiz said. “At that time, I couldn’t afford to take any amount of time to be with her. I could only take a few days off to be with her in surgery, and when she started radiation. This would allow for that time we needed to happen.”
How would it work? Just like Social Security: A state fund would be created and fed by a state tax, like Social Security is paid by federal taxes. That reserve would be funded by employers and employees, 50-50, and when an employee needed to take time off, they’d be paid directly by the state.
But what about the cost?
“Our proposal says that out of your paycheck you will contribute .0063 percent of your weekly pay,” Ruiz said. “For [a minimum] wage worker [making] $11 an hour, that’s $2.77 a week.” With the other half coming from the business, that makes the out-of-pocket expenses $1.39 a week on minimum wage. (On a $15 an hour minimum wage, that contribution would only increase to $1.89 a week.)
But how much would you be paid?
You would receive up to 90 percent of your income, or a max of $1,000 a week during leave time. Because it’s up to 90 percent of your wages, this fund is available for all workers—part-time as well as full-time.
And your job would be there for you when you got back.
“We hear all the time about people being one illness away from bankruptcy,” Ruiz said. “This is why, because we don’t have this kind of protection.”
As someone who works in a restaurant, I’m constantly on my feet. I need the use of both of my arms and hands, I can’t work from home, and taking a half day is utterly impractical. I’ve had friends and co-workers who have been out of work for months due to injuries not incurred on the job (so no worker’s comp), and their resulting work options hovered between bleak and non-existent.
For tipped employees, the proposed fund would cover up to 90 percent of their expected weekly pay, based on recorded tips. And whether their teammates absorb their shifts until they are well, or the restaurant hires someone else, no one gets fired. Or evicted, as those things tend to go.
Volunteers hit streets with the aforementioned petitions last month and will be out gathering signatures until Nov 18. If quotas are met and the state approves the measures, they will appear on the ballot in 2018.
“I think we all know what’s at stake,” Ruiz said.
For info about signature gathering events, or to become a volunteer to gather signatures, check out @raiseupma on social media.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.