A new bill – proposed by State Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) and Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) — would set a minimum tipped wage of $7.25 an hour, bringing tipped employees’ pay rate in line with the rest of the state’s workers.
The current tipped minimum wage, which can range from $2.13 to $2.33 an hour, assumes that workers will make most of their income through tips. But, with this past year’s public health restrictions on businesses and restaurants, that payment system has left restaurant workers struggling.
Rep. Hong, who owns and operates Morris Ramen on King Street, said in a press conference today that the bill would create more equal footing between employers and laborers.
“We’re really keeping folks from being bad actors and really working towards a greater vision of restaurants that have equitable pay structures that empower their workers,” she said.
Larissa Joanna is the co-founder of Wisconsin’s Restaurant Worker Coalition, which was created last year in response to the pandemic’s impact on food industry workers. She says the bill will help protect the state’s undocumented workers, many of whom work in food service.
“One of the things that we found was the biggest problem is enforcing their rights. A lot of these folks do not know that $2.33 is the hourly wage, but legally you are supposed to be making $7.25 if you’re not making enough money with the tips,” she says.
Nationally, hourly workers have waged a years-long fight to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour. Recently, the proposal was included in the federal government’s nearly two trillion dollar COVID-19 stimulus package, but it was removed before passage.
“$7.25 is still the minimum wage, and it’s not a livable wage, but if we add the tips it becomes a little more decent. That’s what we’re really wishing to get here,” Joanna says.
Sen. Larson says that, due to their dependence on tips, restaurant workers also have to struggle with harassment from patrons. That’s a particularly pronounced issue for female employees.
According to the Harvard Business Review, as many as ninety percent of women in food service have reported being targets of sexual harassment. Sen. Larson says that states which have eliminated a tipped minimum wage have seen significant dips in reported harassment among food service workers.
“One out of every seven sexual harassment charges is from a tipped worker,” he told reporters. “However, the seven states that got rid of tipped wages have seen half the rates of sexual harassment as states that have retained it.”
The wage increase would come after a long, difficult stretch for the state’s food service workers. According to the non-partisan Wisconsin Policy Forum, nearly 40% of the state’s food and hospitality workers filed an initial unemployment claim in the early months of the pandemic.
Statewide, pandemic and public health restrictions have slowly started to ease — and restaurants are beginning to gradually reopen. But, full reopenings are likely still months away.
In the meantime, Hong and Larson will face a likely uphill battle in getting the wage hike passed.
State Republicans have already indicated they’re against increasing the statewide minimum wage. The state budget writing committee has pledged to remove a proposed minimum wage increase from Governor Tony Evers’ biennial budget.
But Rep. Hong says she’s open to any discussion on the proposals — including from those who don’t necessarily support its current form.
“We hope to see some support and we’ll be open to conversation with anyone in the legislature who wishes to support or has concerns about it,” she says.
The bill is still circulating for co-sponsorship in the Senate and Assembly and has yet to be formally introduced. If it passes, the bill would likely take effect immediately.
(PHOTO: Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash)