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Ballot question opponents warn tipping will go away


Ballot question opponents warn tipping will go away

Mar 12, 2024 | 5:14 pm ET
By Gintautas Dumcius
Ballot question opponents warn tipping will go away
Photo courtesy of CommonWealth

PROPONENTS OF A statewide ballot question say they’re representing workers who rely on tips by boosting the minimum wage. But wait: the question’s opponents, who own restaurants, say they’re actually the ones on the side of workers, arguing the ballot question could lead to a drop in tipping and clobber an already fragile industry.

The ballot question, which must still clear several hurdles before it goes before voters in November, would raise the state’s minimum wage for tipped workers from $6.75 to $15, while allowing them to keep tips but revamping the system by allowing cooks and restaurant office workers to share the tip revenue.

A national coalition, led by a California activist and called “One Fair Wage,” said the current system – which requires restaurants to make up the difference if the $6.75 plus tips fails to add up to at least $15 – leads to uneven pay and leaves staff vulnerable to wage theft as well as sexual harassment.

The ballot question’s second section has drawn the most criticism, since it would expand the pooling of tips to include people who don’t directly interact with customers. Restaurant owners have homed in on that section, saying their waitstaff and bartenders aren’t interested in sharing their hard-earned tips with others. Cooks and others who work in the “back of the house,” as that area of the restaurant is called, currently are blocked from participating in tip pools.

The two sides clashed Tuesday on the State House steps before heading inside to testify before a special legislative committee reviewing all the ballot measures. As pink-hatted “One Fair Wage” supporters spoke to reporters, opponents appeared behind them, holding signs and chanting “Save our tips.”

Inside, the Senate chair of the special committee said she was perplexed by the messaging from opponents. “I’m a little confused with the narrative I’m hearing. Are you afraid people won’t tip?” said Sen. Cindy Friedman.

Seana Gaherin, who owns an Irish pub in Newton, said the fear is customers, understanding the minimum wage is being increased, won’t tip, particularly if the price of food and drink goes up to cover the higher costs brought about by the wage increase. “The tip is going to go away. It is going to be reduced,” she said.

Rep. Michael Day asked proponents of the ballot initiative about the mixed responses he’s been getting through his own unscientific poll of waitstaff he’s met. They say they like the raise in the minimum wage, but don’t like the expansion of tip-pooling, according to Day.

Saru Jayaraman, the California-based activist spearheading the ballot initiative, chalked those feelings up to a “fear of change” amid a move to everyone getting the same wage. “We hear this fear of change. Certainly the restaurant association is trying to prey on that by saying ‘your tips are going to go away,’” she said.

Jayaraman said a full $15 an hour would also lead to a reduction in sexual harassment. Waitstaff, many of whom are single mothers struggling to pay the bills, depend on tips and may be disincentivized to speak up against a customer, she said. “You are dependent on the biases and harassment of customers to feed your children.”

Lawmakers also heard from academics, including Sean Jung, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration. 

In states that have adopted a full minimum wage for tipped workers, as the ballot question would do, the total workforce has stayed the same or seen a slight reduction, while wages for people in the sector have increased, Jung said. Restaurants typically increase prices, or choose to hike a service charge, he said.

Higher end restaurants can handle the implementation, while more casual dining spots could find it difficult to cover expenses they already have, he said. Restaurants in the middle could convert downward to a more fast-casual type of restaurant, with fewer servers, he added. 

Jung pointed to restaurants in East Asia, which use robot-driven food carts. “These types of things will be seen more to basically save costs,” he said.