Column: Restaurant servers want to retain ‘tip credit’

Joshua Chaisson

I love “Grace and Frankie,” the popular television show starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. As a server, I don’t love these actresses’ recent support for changing Michigan’s minimum wage law to the detriment of tipped restaurant employees.

This debate is personal for me. I work as server in Portland, Maine; earlier this year, I was actively involved in a grassroots lobbying effort with thousands of other restaurant workers to undo the policy that Fonda and Tomlin are now advocating for in Michigan.

The circumstances are very similar: Poorly understood language to eliminate the state’s tip credit (more on that in a minute) was inserted in a broadly-popular ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour. Many Maine voters who supported a higher minimum wage didn’t realize they were also supporting a policy that would reduce pay for tipped restaurant workers. I helped start a grassroots movement of employees who realized their profession was under attack.

After a robust campaign to educate the state legislature, Republicans and Democrats joined together to undo the harmful provision related to the base wage for tipped employees.

For those who are new to this debate, allow me define this unusual “tip credit” term. Tipped servers and bartenders are paid a lower base wage ($3.38 per hour in Michigan) by their employer. If the state minimum wage of $8.90 is not met with tips, the employer makes up the difference. (The dollar difference between those two numbers is the tip credit.) You don’t hear of employers having to make up the difference because it rarely happens; with the current model servers make fantastic money. I earn around $22 an hour on average with tips.

I’m a supporter of raising the minimum wage, but voters shouldn’t be fooled into believing that eliminating the tip credit has anything to do with this goal. As written, this proposed initiative in Michigan forces small restaurants to give their best-paid employees a raise — to the detriment of customers and “heart of house” line cooks and prep cooks. Restaurant owners work on very slim margins — typically 5 percent or less. If the tip credit is eliminated, prices will surge, service will deteriorate, and the people who need the raise the most will suffer.

With very few exceptions, the servers I met in Maine were strong supporters of the tipped status quo. The change to this status quo was not done at their urging. Rather, it was set in motion by an organization called the Restaurant Opportunities Center and its founder, Saru Jayaraman. Jayaraman was her cause’s worst enemy in Maine; she flew in from Berkeley, Calif., and struck out with the state legislature after lecturing them about the state’s restaurant industry (about which she knew very little).

ROC learned no lessons from its loss in Maine, and its Michigan outpost is now advocating for the same failed policy. Tomlin and Fonda are unfortunately complicit in this goal, helping ROC raise support from donors who are disconnected from the realities of working as a tipped server. When organizations like ROC and its spokespeople advocate for “One Fair Wage,” what it means is they want everyone working for the same wage: The minimum wage.

If the tip credit is eliminated, you’ll see a number of consequences: increased automation in full-service restaurants, and some businesses embracing the harmful no-tipping model. Others will close entirely. (If you hear anyone suggest that California’s experience with a high minimum wage and no tip credit has been beneficial, encourage them to Google “Bay Area restaurant closures” and then report back to you.)

Ask a server why they wait tables and you’ll get a multitude of answers. One common response is that we choose it because it’s the best way to provide good income for our families with lots of flexibility.

People who don’t work in the industry are attempting to speak for servers. Maybe they should start by speaking to us. Then they would understand that we like what we do, and we wouldn’t do it for minimum wage.

Joshua Chaisson is a restaurant worker in Portland, Maine.