Bradenton tipped workers can breathe relief, for now

jsalman@bradenton.comMarch 5, 2012 

MANATEE For Bill Allman, every penny counts.

The 56-year-old Bradenton man was laid off from his position as a college counselor a few years ago. He now waits tables part-time at Ortygia in Village of the Arts.

Tips at the small Sicilian restaurant are decent, but Allman said it’s still a struggle to get by. Any reduction in pay could mean a bill going past due or the gas tank sitting empty.

And now a portion of Allman’s earnings have come under attack by corporate chain restaurants and some state lawmakers who believe he makes too much.

The Senate measure appears stuck in committee, but Allman and many servers like him fear the proposal will ultimately resurface possibly in the form of a legal battle later this year.

The issue gets to the heart of a war that’s been brewing since the recession between restaurants that believe it has become too costly to do business in Florida and their workers, who comprise a large portion of the tourism state’s labor force.

“Every few dollars can make a big difference,” Allman said. “It will hurt. If you work 10 or 20 hours a week, that’s a tank of gas.”

The proposed Senate bill would trim the minimum wage for tipped employees in Florida by $2.52 an hour, from the current rate of $4.65 to the federal minimum of $2.13, which hasn’t been raised in two decades.

As part of the plan, participating restaurants must promise their employees will earn at least $9.98 combined through tips and base salary a component added to protect coffee shop workers who see much smaller gratuities.

But those already earning more than that benchmark will lose about $20 for every eight-hour shift they work, according to the bill analysis.

The measure has fueled a statewide fury from recession-battered restaurant employees, like Allman, fighting to survive trying times.

Petitions circulating the Internet and rallies at popular chain eateries drove state lawmakers to reconsider last week, likely leaving the measure to die for now, said Rich Templin, legislative director of the Florida AFL-CIO, a state federation representing 500 local labor unions and 500,000 workers.

“It’s quite frankly a way for them to skirt the minimum wage requirement of Florida’s Constitution,” Templin said. “The vast majority of tipped workers will see a dramatic reduction in wages.”

The bill has been stuck in the Senate’s Commerce and Tourism Committee, where it likely won’t advance.

Committee Chairwoman, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, whose district also covers portions of Manatee County, said the measure needed too much work to be introduced so late in the session, which comes to a close Friday.

“It’s a complex issue because these truly aren’t minimum wage workers, and some are making as much as $20 an hour,” Detert said. “When we put the bill together, we just realized it was riddled with problems.”

Detert said the measure was crafted at the request of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which was seeking payroll relief for some of its largest members like Outback and Chili’s.

But lowering the minimum wage may not even be legal under the state constitution, Detert said.

The present definition of tipped employees also could create loopholes with other workers in Florida who receive some gratuity, like hotel employees, car washers and taxi drivers, she said.

She believes the issue will ultimately wind up in the courts as mega restaurants work to settle those questions. A refined version also could surface during next year’s legislative session.

The restaurant association argues the changes are necessary to give their workers more paycheck stability, with tips swinging drastically from night to night and season to summer.

Many companies also are opting to open restaurants in others states that already follow the $2.13 federal standard, allowing them to operate with much lower payroll overhead, according to the restaurant association.

“This will create more opportunity in the restaurant industry,” association President and Chief Executive Officer Carol Dover said in a statement. “The plan will give Florida the dual advantage of offering the highest state wage guarantee in the country and offering employers more flexibility in how they compensate.”

The state slowly has been increasing the minimum wage associated with tipped workers for a decade to keep pace with inflation.

But over that time, the industry has changed, with a heavy emphasis on digital credit card sales allowing restaurateurs to better track what their employees really take home.

Since the downturn, restaurant operators have been lobbying for a change. They simply believe the move will present a great reward for them with few adverse effects on their employees.

“All of their pay increases have just pretty much been eaten by taxes anyway,” said Paul Mattison, chef and owner of Mattison’s, which employs 150 area workers between two restaurants and a catering service. “It’s not that helpful for the workers but really hurts restaurants. Their base salary is just so insignificant compared to how much they make.”

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter@JoshSalman

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