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Beyond Minimum: Push to End Two-Tiered Wage System

The tipped-wage system leaves many restaurant workers living below poverty level. (DodgertonSkillhause/morguefile)
The tipped-wage system leaves many restaurant workers living below poverty level. (DodgertonSkillhause/morguefile)
May 26, 2017

LANSING, Mich. – Restaurant workers have a tip for diners: Many want to see an end to the tipped wage system in Michigan.

Under existing law, employers must pay tipped employees at least $3.38 per hour. They're allowed to collect tips on top of that, but if those tips don't bring their hourly pay up to the minimum wage, which right now is $8.90, the employer must make up the difference.

Alicia Renee Farris, state director of the Restaurant Opportunity Center of Michigan, says that often doesn't happen, and because enforcement is weak, many servers, bussers, hosts, bartenders struggle to support themselves.

"You are unlikely to qualify for purchases of homes or to be able to buy cars," she says. "You are reliant upon the generosity of others versus your employer to be able to provide for your household."

Restaurant owners say eliminating the tipped wage would cause food prices to rise and put many out of business. Farris, however, notes that hasn't happened in states that have done away with the tipped wage, and that it has led to greater employee retention and in many cases higher tips.

Advocates hope to put the issue on the ballot for Michigan voters next year.

An estimated 70 percent of restaurant servers are women, and Farris says because a living wage is not guaranteed, the current system means they frequently have to put up with harassment from customers, co-workers and management.

"A manager would say, 'If you did a little bit more cleavage, or your skirt was a little shorter, then you would get more tips,'" she adds. "Or, 'You have to take that kind of talk or inappropriate touching if you want to make it in this industry, so just toughen up.'"

The federal government has targeted the restaurant industry as the single largest source of sexual-harassment charges filed by women, with a rate five times higher than any other industry.

Mona Shand, Public News Service - MI