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December 6, 2023

CT lawmakers propose nixing tipped minimum wage — again

ERICA E. PHILLIPS / CT MIRROR Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, will raise legislation next year — for the second year in a row — to eliminate the tipped minimum wage.

Members of the Connecticut General Assembly want to revisit a legislative proposal to eliminate the lower minimum wage assigned to hourly employees who earn tips — establishing instead a single minimum wage that would apply to all workers.

The legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee approved a similar bill, S.B. 1177, during the 2023 session, but it didn’t come up for a vote in either chamber. In a press conference Tuesday, committee co-chair Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, said she intends for the ‘One Fair Wage’ proposal to be on the table again in 2024. 

Kushner said when the legislature agreed to raise Connecticut’s minimum wage in 2019 — via incremental annual increases and now pegged to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics index — “we left some people behind.”

Connecticut’s minimums for tipped workers remain where they’ve been since 2017: $6.38 for wait staff and $8.23 for bartenders. Tips are expected to bring those wages up to at least the full minimum wage, and in cases where they don’t, employers are required by law to pay the difference — known as a tip credit. 

“That’s why we have a Department of Labor and wage inspectors, and that’s how you resolve this. We already have laws in place that get them to minimum wage right now,” said State Rep. Tim Ackert, a Coventry Republican and ranking member on the Labor Committee. 

But Kushner and other advocates said restaurant workers are often reluctant to raise the issue — let alone seek legal recourse. 

“What we don’t do in other industries is allow employers to pay less than the minimum wage, and that’s where we really run into trouble here,” Kushner said. “If we guarantee one fair wage, then we are actually lifting the bottom, we’re closing that crack, and we’re making it possible for people to have a more stable existence.”

Representatives from the restaurant industry argued that servers prefer the tipped-wage model as it is. A recent survey of servers and bartenders conducted by the Connecticut Restaurant Association found the average hourly wages for these positions, including tips, came out to more than twice the statewide minimum wage. 

In an emailed statement, Scott Dolch, president of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said, “If passed, this legislation would completely change how servers in Connecticut are paid, putting at risk a system that currently benefits thousands of servers, small business restaurant owners, and Connecticut’s local economy.” Dolch went on to say if restaurants paid servers the full minimum wage, that could discourage patrons from tipping. “It would also give an inherent advantage to large national chains, harming Connecticut small businesses and resulting in less local choice for Connecticut consumers.”

Ackert pointed out that the tipped minimum wage helps keep prices down for consumers. “The reason why we have a tipped wage in the state of Connecticut is really the cost of going out to dinner, going out to a bar, to get a meal,” Ackert said. “That reduces the overall cost that an employer or a restaurant has to charge.” 

Still, Ackert said, he’s open to eliminating the state’s tipped minimum wage, incrementally over a few years, as long as restaurant owners and employees are included in the conversation and agree that it would work for them.

“I don’t see why not,” he said.

The ‘One Fair Wage’ movement is gaining momentum nationally. Lawmakers in at least half a dozen states are considering legislation similar to Connecticut’s proposal, and several other states could see the issue come before voters on the 2024 ballot. Seven states already require most or all employers to pay tipped workers the full minimum wage.

Advocates for eliminating the tipped minimum wage often point to the historical origins of the system.

“The subminimum wage for tipped workers was a direct legacy of slavery,” Saru Jayaraman, president of the national One Fair Wage campaign, said at the press conference Tuesday. “It was created after Emancipation to allow restaurants to hire newly freed Black people — Black women in particular — not pay them, and force them to live entirely on this new idea … called tips.”

Jayaraman is now testifying before state legislatures around the country to end the system for good. And she’ll likely be back in Connecticut during next year’s legislative season, when Kushner, Ackert and the rest of the Labor Committee hear testimony for the second time on the proposal.

The 2024 session convenes Feb. 7.

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