Under-Served? New Minimum Wage Bill Gets Mixed Messages From Service Industry

minimum wageThe upstairs bar at Russell House Tavern

On a quiet Tuesday morning in Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square, Katie Russo folds napkins and waits for customers. Right now, with no tables, she’s getting paid $2.63 an hour, about one-third of the minimum wage for non-tipped labor. But soon, that may change.

In November, the Massachusetts Senate overwhelmingly approved an increase in the minimum wage from $8 to $11 by 2016. Included in the bill is a provision that would require the minimum wage for tipped employees to be half that of other sectors.

For Russell House Tavern, a restaurant with about 30 servers, a wage increase like this could cost the restaurant a hundred thousand dollars in one year.
Sure, it would hurt the bottom line,” says Royce Eason, who has managed at Russell House Tavern for the past year. We’d possibly have to downsize the staff, maybe rely a little bit more on the full-time staff. But if it makes the servers happy, it would reflect positively on us, and they would make more money.”

“I don’t think it would change the way I served,” says Chris Gray, who has served at Russell House for about two months. He says he doesn’t see how a couple more dollars per hour would bring him any more financial security.

“[Server minimum wage] has a long way to go before it would effect us,” says Russo, who has been in the service industry for more than seven years. Being in an area where she sees a lot of customers from out of state, she says she has generally received a lower tip amount from people from states who have higher wages for servers. And that hurts her bottom line.

“You would never have the good without the bad,” says Russo. She has slow days and busy days, but overall, she says they even out. She compares serving to working in a hair salon: You have your section, and what you take home corresponds with your skill set.

“[It’s like] working for yourself,” she says. “I couldn’t work in retail or even as a bank teller and make this much.”

Alex Galimberti, a server and lead organizer of the Boston chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, says that ROCUNITEDlogo-2db2df-150pxservers like these, who work in high traffic areas like Harvard Square, belong to the “elite” of the service industry.

“Here in the Boston-Cambridge area, we have the fortune of having high check averages and generally good tippers, so you can make a good amount,” he says. “If you’re not working [here], if you’re in Western Mass or you work at a diner, your income will be substantially less.”

Boston’s ROC United office, which opened in September, was instrumental in the amendment of the minimum wage bill to include tipped employees. If the House passes the bill, this will be the first tipped employee wage hike in Massachusetts since 1999.

“I know people who are servers for their careers, to support their family,” says Galimberti of an industry that can tend towards transience. “What other industry can you work in that has not had a single raise in the last 15 years? I know servers who have worked at the same restaurant for ten years and never gotten a raise.”

According to the National Restaurant Association, which has come out against minimum wage increases, a hike in server wages would cause restaurant owners to limit hiring and cut hours. In response to this and criticisms like it, Galimberti points to states where there is no differentiation between tipped and non-tipped workers.

“The number of servers who have to apply for assistance [in these states] is much lower,” says Galimberti. “By paying servers $2.63 an hour, we are asking customers to subsidize server wages and taxpayers to subsidize their benefits” through programs like MassHealth and food stamps.

The Massachusetts Senate approved the minimum wage bill on November 19th of last year. It is unclear when the house will pick up the legislation.