Florida Minimum Wage Could Be Slashed For Restaurant Workers

The Florida restaurant lobby is pushing a bill that would drop the minimum wage for the state's restaurant servers and other tipped employees from $4.65 to $2.13 an hour, creating the rare possibility of a legal wage floor being lowered rather than raised.

The bill under consideration by the state's tourism and commerce committee, SPB 7210, would allow restaurants to ditch the state's minimum wage for servers in favor of the lower, federal one, provided the businesses guarantee that their workers will earn at least $9.98 per hour after tips. If the bill were passed, servers would end up taking home less pay, and customers would be paying a greater share of the salary burden.

The state senate's website does not disclose who introduced the bill, though it appears to have the wide support of Florida's hospitality industry, including the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. Carol Dover, the group's executive director, said in an Orlando Sentinel article that the industry is saddled by rising pay and health care costs and "it's going to be a matter of time before the back of this industry breaks ... Minimum wage is killing them."

Worker advocacy groups are pushing back against the bill, arguing that the restaurant industry's dire talk is baseless. The National Restaurant Association, the foremost lobbying group for the industry, recently released its 2012 forecast, which predicted record sales and continued job growth.

"That's nationwide, and certainly Florida is no exception," says Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which advocates for restaurant employees. "We think [the Florida bill] is both regressive and terribly immoral. To be reducing workers' wages at a time when profits are at a record high is pure greed."

According to the Sentinel article, one of the backers of the bill is Tampa-based OSI Restaurant Partners, owner of Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill and Bonefish Grill chains. OSI Partners gave more than $120,000 to 32 Florida Republicans -- and $500 to one Democrat -- during the 2010 election cycle, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

In most states, the minimum wage for waiters and other tipped employees is set lower than the minimum wage for other workers. Servers everywhere must be paid at least $2.13 per hour by their employer according to federal law, although many states opt to set that minimum much higher.

Florida has a minimum wage that's adjusted each year according to the rising cost of living, and the minimum for tipped employees is set as a percentage of the general minimum wage. The bill under consideration would effectively split the two wage floors, pegging the servers' rate to the flat federal rate. Given that restaurant customers are unlikely to change their tipping habits due to legislation, servers would probably lose around $2.50 an hour in wages.

The National Employment Law Project, a left-leaning advocacy group for low-wage workers, is claiming that the Florida bill violates the state constitution, given that the cost-of-living adjustment on the minimum wage was the result of a constitutional amendment.

Tsedeye Gebreselassie, staff attorney at NELP, says that the senate bill is just the latest in a string of Florida legislative initiatives that would make life harder for low-wage workers. Republican legislators last year pushed a bill that would have slowed the rate at which the minimum wage increased each year. And after Miami-Dade County passed a progressive law aimed at curbing wage theft, the retail industry led an effort last year to have such local ordinances banned by state law.

"The Florida legislature is really trying to make things more difficult for low-wage workers," says Gebreselassie. "Every bill being put forward is anti-worker and anti-low wage worker."

Michael Saltsman, a research fellow at the conservative Employment Policies Institute, says the change to Florida's minimum wage for tipped workers would be a good thing, since it would keep wages consistent from year to year. He also notes that servers' wages would still be 30 percent higher than the minimum wage.

"Supporting it should be a no-brainer," Saltsman says. "That groups like NELP are not supporting it has more to do with ideology than with concern for the employees themselves.”