Brian O'Neill: People working for tips in restaurants could use a raise

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Estelle Becker has been waiting tables in Pittsburgh for nearly 40 years, and in that time her minimum wage as a tipped employee hasn't moved much.

She remembers starting at $1.05 an hour in her father's Downtown restaurant. Now she works at a very nice place where expense accounts help embolden the patrons into ordering thick steaks -- and Ms. Becker is paid $2.83 an hour before tips.

That state minimum hasn't changed in 23 years. She and tens of thousands like her live almost entirely off tips. She has no sick days. She lost her health care a few months ago. Some days there isn't enough work and she's sent home, blowing what she just paid to park. Retirement is a fantasy.

"I wonder or stress every week for 40 years, 'Will I make enough this week to pay what bills are coming in?' "

I met Ms. Becker late last month after she spoke at the noontime Equal Pay Rally on Market Square. It was take-your-child-to-work day and my 14-year-old daughter and her friend were cheering her loudly.

For a woman who had no public speaking experience, Ms. Becker could rouse a crowd. Maybe it's because all the politicians who spoke before her have good pay and benefits. For her, Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1317 to raise the state's minimum wage from $7.25 to $12 an hour, and to repeal the tipped-employee exclusion, is no abstract question. It's life.

Not that I'd bet a night's tip money on its passage.

Republicans control both houses of the General Assembly and this bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Daylin Leach, the self-described "Liberal Lion" from Montgomery County, is a Democrat running for Congress. It doesn't hurt Mr. Leach to be seen fighting to raise the minimum wage, but Republicans will likely block this the way their peers in the U.S. Senate blocked a bid to raise the national minimum from $7.25 to $10.10 over three years.

Both parties pacify their bases with these standoffs. Politicians get something out of the gridlock while low-wage workers reap a whole lot of nothing.

The rally in Market Square was focused on the inequality in pay between men and women, but that fits seamlessly with the tipped-employee issue. Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers and tipped employees in Pennsylvania are women, according to Wendy Voet, executive director of the advocacy group Women's Way.

Ms. Becker sums that up more succinctly: "You don't see any men [waiting tables] in breakfast joints, do you?"

I could see the rally pumped her up, but she since has returned to the reality of work and a wage that doesn't budge. She lives in Dormont with an adult son with a disability who occasionally gets yard work from neighbors. I asked her about going back-and-forth between workers' advocacy and her job.

"Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it. Is anything ever going to change? Sometimes I have to back off for a couple of days. It can really wear you down."

The restaurant industry has, of course, lobbied against raising the minimum wage. The law already requires the employer to make up the difference if tips don't bring an employee's take to at least $7.25 per hour. If restaurants' costs go up, they'll pass those on to customers, and the cost of dining will rise.

But there's a lot of room between the $2.83 that tipped workers get and what Mr. Leach advocates. Let's try some math.

Ms. Becker says there are about 30 tipped employees on every shift in her restaurant. Raising the tipped wage a buck would cost the place $30 in an hour. Selling one more steak dinner each hour would more than cover that.

Could you sell more with happier workers? You might. A hundred years ago, Henry Ford helped build the American middle class by more than doubling wages of the average auto worker to $5 a day. He stemmed the tide of men walking away from boring assembly line work and increased productivity, and his workers suddenly could afford the cars they were building.

Nobody expects the state to double the minimum wage, but it hasn't kept up with inflation. The floor that tipped workers tread hasn't been repaired in more than two decades. And Mr. Leach argues that seven states with some of the highest minimum wages don't allow the tip credit.

I don't see that going away in Pennsylvania, but I'd bet a steak dinner that restaurant workers in those seven states eat out more often.

Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.

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