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SJC green-lights tipped wages ballot measure

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SJC green-lights tipped wages ballot measure

Jun 13, 2024 | 1:13 pm ET
By Jennifer Smith
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SJC green-lights tipped wages ballot measure
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Photo courtesy of CommonWealth

A BALLOT INITIATIVE that would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers and let employees pool tips cleared the state’s highest court on Thursday, with justices concluding the petition’s language is just fine to put before voters.

The ballot measure would change front-of-house and back-of-house compensation structures in eating establishments. Workers like cooks or kitchen staff are paid at least minimum hourly wages while workers who interact with employees, like waiters and hosts, are paid a lower hourly wage but receive tips.

Opponents of the initiative challenged it before the Supreme Judicial Court, arguing it violates the rule that ballot measures can only include related or mutually dependent policy provisions by adjusting both the tipping structure and the minimum wages. These two provisions could exist independently and are not operationally related, they said in their filing, so the average voter would not understand the measure to be a “unified statement of public policy.”

Unlike the Legislature, which has broad powers to rewrite bills, voters can only offer a yes or no vote on possible laws. The state constitution requires that ballot measures include only policy proposals that the average voter could understand to be part of one cohesive policy vision.

Ballot measures like those legalizing marijuana may be complex, but the high court determined that they presented a coherent picture to voters.

On tipped wages, justices signaled willingness to allow the ballot measure during arguments before the court last month and dispensed with the issue in a brisk, occasionally sharp, 19-page ruling.

Writing for the court, Justice Scott Kafker said the justices “have no difficulty concluding that the initiative here satisfies the relatedness requirement.” The ballot measure introduces an “integrated scheme” to adjust tipping policy and its provisions are operationally related because there is “a logical relationship” between creating a uniform minimum wage and allowing tip pooling among all workers in tipped industries, he wrote.

He added that “the petition can in no way be said to ‘yoke together substantively distinct subjects unrelated to a consistent public policy.’”

While those challenging the certification, in Kafker’s description, “make much of the fact that the Legislature has considered and ultimately not passed multiple bills that would have increased the cash wage for tipped employees and eliminated the tip credit,” that the Legislature has failed to pass laws on these topics “is, however, of no import. In fact, that is often the very purpose of an initiative.”

The ballot initiative is put forward by the group One Fair Wage, a national nonprofit led by the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California Berkeley.

“The court has rightly sided with the people, recognizing that workers have the right to decide this issue at the ballot,” Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, said in a statement after the ruling. 

Massachusetts Restaurant Association president Stephen Clark, in his own statement, knocked the ballot measure’s California-based organizers. Clark was a named plaintiff challenging the measure before the SJC.

“Regardless of today’s decision, tipped employees continue to be overwhelmingly opposed to this ballot question brought from activists in California,” he said. “Servers and bartenders from across Massachusetts have been reaching out to express fear that this question will take money out of their pockets. This decision simply increases that concern.”

With the court’s sign-off, the ballot initiative campaign is set to ramp up. Proponents must collect their final signatures to make it before voters in November.

Recent polling from UMass Amherst for WCVB found the highest level of support for the tipped wages question out of all the ballot measures it surveyed. Asked if they would support an initiative that “would gradually increase the minimum hourly wage for tipped workers to match the state minimum wage by 2029,” 69 percent said yes, 16 percent said no, and 15 percent said they did not know.

Other ballot measures remain in play, and legislators are floating the possibility of intervening to keep some from being decided this fall by voters.
Meanwhile, the SJC still needs to weigh in on an array of possible ballot petitions that would define the relationship between app-based drivers and Transportation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft, as well as requests to strike or rename a ballot measure that would remove MCAS as a graduation requirement and amend the standards for student competency.