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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bill slashing tipped minimum wage dies in Senate

A bill that would have cut the hourly pay of restaurant servers and other tipped employees by more than half has died in the Florida Senate — a development that drew cheers from hourly workers.

"To hear it has died is phenomenal," said Cheryl Hennessey, a server at Epcot's Garden Grill restaurant. "[I'm] thrilled to death."

The measure (SB 2106) never got a House companion and stalled after getting approval from the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee. Sen. Nancy Detert, who heads that committee, declared the bill's demise.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which had proposed it, acknowledged Tuesday that it has given up this year.

"It was terrible policy, unconstitutional, and as we saw over the last couple of weeks, wildly unpopular with Floridians who realized that ... the worst thing that should be done in this economic climate is to cut working people's wages," said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for lower-income workers.

The proposal would have allowed some restaurants and other employers to pay staff the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour instead of Florida's minimum of $4.65. To qualify, companies would have had to guarantee that employees would make at least $9.98 an hour when tips were included.

It met with outrage across Florida, where more than 200,000 people work as bartenders, servers and other jobs that depend heavily on tips. The bill garnered national attention, too, with TV satirist Stephen Colbert lampooning it on "The Colbert Report" last week.

Workers praised the death of the bill, saying it would have made getting by financially even harder than it already is.

Joel Melendez, 27, has to pay for college tuition and child support making about $11 an hour waiting tables at a Ruby Tuesday in Orlando. He shares a cellphone with his roommate to save money and can't afford health insurance.

"We kind of depend on every scrap we can get," he said.

Even so, restaurants argued that Florida's tipped minimum of $4.65, which under the state constitution increases annually to keep up with inflation, is crippling them financially when combined with rising costs of food and insurance.

Detert, R-Venice, who originally championed the bill, said her support for it waned as she realized that restaurant workers making less than average would not benefit.

"It wasn't going to help the low end, and it would have hurt the high end," Detert said. "That was the end of the road for us."

Under the bill, restaurants would have had to guarantee a wage of $9.98 an hour with tips included if they wanted to qualify for the $2.13 minimum. If employees didn't reach that amount, restaurants would have had to make up the difference.

But because the program was optional, restaurants with employees making less money would have had no reason to opt in. The only ones that would have had an incentive to do so would be those with employees making more.

The restaurant association's chief executive officer, Carol Dover, said Tuesday that she doesn't know whether her group will try again next year. But something must be done to keep the minimum wage in check, she said, or else Florida restaurants will cut jobs as costs go up.

"You're going to go to restaurants and have iPads and iPhones and ways in which the server is going to ultimately become archaic in some cases," she said.

Florida AFL-CIO political director Rich Templin called that argument "crazy," pointing to National Restaurant Association projections last year saying Florida and Texas will see the nation's strongest restaurant-job growth during the next decade.

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