Women workers take on MN restaurant lobby over tip penalty

St. Paul barista Evann Zuckerman joins a march on the Minnesota Restaurant Association’s offices in St. Paul.

Women workers delivered a message to the state’s powerful restaurant lobby yesterday that an attack on tipped workers’ wages is an attack on women.

Tipped workers joined union members and other supporters in a march on the Minnesota Restaurant Association’s offices in St. Paul, where the women staged a rally and delivered a letter demanding the organization end its campaign to carve out a subminimum “tipped wage” in St. Paul.

“I want to keep one fair wage in my industry,” St. Paul barista Evann Zuckerman told other activists at the rally. “I want the MRA out of the way, and to stop putting profits over people.”

Mayor Melvin Carter, who made a $15 citywide minimum wage the centerpiece of his 2017 election campaign, wants an ordinance on the books by the end of the year. Among the biggest questions he and City Council members face in drafting the ordinance is whether to include a tipped wage.

MRA is lobbying hard for a carve-out, as the organization does any time elected officials consider raising the minimum wage. (The MRA also supports a statewide law stripping cities like St. Paul of the power to raise labor standards in their communities.)

Minnesota is one of seven states without a “tip penalty,” which allows restaurants and bars to pay workers a lower wage as long as they make up the difference in tips. Not only is the arrangement highly susceptible to wage theft, but it also puts servers and bartenders – 70 percent of whom are women – at a greater risk of experiencing sexual harassment and abusive behavior.

Zuckerman, who has five years of experience in the industry, said she’s been hit on by customers and harassed by managers.

“Skewed power dynamics,” she said, are a big part of restaurant culture. The more reliant workers are on tips, the less likely they are to push back.

“Men who are already feel entitled treat female workers even worse knowing that they hold so much over us, as the minimum wage now is not enough and we need tips to survive,” she said. “The Minnesota Restaurant Association knows that making us rely on tips means workers are disempowered, and they just don’t care.”

A restaurant owner from Seattle, where the minimum wage is on track to reach $15, also spoke at the rally. Shirley Henderson urged St. Paul servers not to buy into the MRA’s warnings that service jobs will disappear or customers will stop tipping if servers’ wages increase.

“In Seattle, groups like the MRA use the same fear-mongering about $15,” Henderson said. “The sky is not falling in Seattle. Small business is thriving.”

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