Labor activists speak out against proposed state legislation that could slash servers' pay

02/27/12 Janelle Irwin
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A proposed state bill would cut tipped workers’ wages by more than half; from $4.65 per hour to $2.13. On Friday afternoon, members of local labor groups protested the legislation at the Outback Steakhouse in Temple Terrace. One of them, Bailey Riley, works as a server at a different chain restaurant in the Tampa Bay area. She said if signed into law, the proposal would pad corporation’s wallets while emptying hers.

“The bill is supposed to advocate business growth, but the fact is that Florida is the third largest thriving hospitality industry state. So, I’m kind of under the impression that it’s just for executives to profiteer off of the exploitation of their workers again. Which isn’t surprising. Now it’s just spread to the hospitality industry.”

Riley added that some people do offer higher gratuity for exceptional service, but it’s not something servers like her can rely on.

“It’s a pretty infrequent thing. I mean, I get literally 5%, I’ll get 20% sometimes. I’d say it probably averages at about 10 or 11 every night that I walk away with.”

Florida’s minimum wage for non-tipped workers is currently set at $7.67. And that’s up about 5% from last year. So that leaves opponents of the measure wondering why wages should be increased for some, but decreased for others. Cheryl Schroeder is the executive director of the West Central Florida Federation of Labor. Her theory is that restaurant magnates stirred the political pot looking for ways to further their profits.

“I didn’t go to my legislator and say, ‘hey, I think we need to cut tipped employees’ wages in half’. I didn’t do that. The person who did do that probably does not have an investment in this community, in this state, like I do. I think that’s what scares me. When our politics, when our legislators, look to outside entities instead of what is best for the citizens, that scares me.”

The group that owns Outback Steakhouse gave more than $120,000 in campaign contributions in 2010. According to the website follow the money dot org, OSI Restaurant Partners, spread those contributions across 32 Republican candidates and one Democrat, Gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink. And that company has been one of the bill’s biggest backers. Supporters of the bill say there are safeguards to ensure workers are still receiving a fair wage, but that doesn’t comfort Riley.

“For a lot of people it really is about the service that you provide. You have to maintain that nice, happy façade and be nice and be friendly and you do get tipped more on that. So, it is a lot of work in that sense too. While there’s a customary appreciation, gratitude that you’re supposed to pay someone it doesn’t really happen all the time. Patrons, I know full well from experience, that they won’t tip more because of that.”

And the notion that customers should be expected to pony up an extra dollar or two for gratuity is something United Steel Worker member Frank Bragg said is a government imposition on dining.

“That is not enough to support a family. These servers, these waiters, these people usually have to work two jobs to make ends meet. Where in Florida, the people that go out to eat have to tip 15-20% to help offset the wages at Outback. That’s not right.”

He added that some people may have to forego eating out unless they want to be a cheap tipper.

“The other part of that is, when you think about this, this is a retirement state. A lot of the seniors, when they go out to eat, they don’t have that extra money to contribute to Outback and Carraba’s pay scale. They should not be having to subsidize.”

Jordan Harrah busses tables for a privately owned restaurant. That means he clears and cleans the tables after customers leave. It also means he gets a portion of the servers’ tip and qualifies as a tipped worker under this proposal. But Harrah said he is lucky because his boss chose to pay wages higher than what the state mandates.

“She’s deeply involved in local politics and really believes in progressive-type politics so it’s great. I actually used to work at this Outback within a year ago. Up prior to about six months ago, I’ve worked in chain restaurants for my whole life – since I was 15-years-old. I really know what it’s like to work in these kinds of restaurants. The transition – it seems like – I haven’t even moved up as far as being a waiter and my standard of living and quality of life and being able to provide for simple things like gas to go to school has become a lot more comforting.”

The bill allows individual establishments to determine their own wages as long as they don’t dip below the established minimum. But servers in chain restaurants like Bailey Riley are convinced that if given the opportunity to slash payroll costs, the Outback’s of the state will take full advantage. Protesters urged those passing by to contact legislators to oppose the bill.

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