Eliminating the separate, lower minimum wage for tipped employees would help workers achieve greater financial stability and reduce exposure to harassment, advocates said Tuesday.
While state law holds that employers are required to make up the nearly $7 per hour difference between the standard and tipped minimum wages if gratuities are insufficient, workers who shared their personal stories at the State House said they are "exploited" by the existing system.
Relying on tips, they said, creates uncertainty about actual take-home pay levels, and many employees said they often have to endure rampant sexual harassment because speaking up risks losing out on key gratuities.
"Every day, it felt like I was leered at, whistled at, had comments made about my body," said Marie Billiel, who has worked in the restaurant industry for 11 years, during a Tuesday rally outside the State House. "I learned that if I reported it, they would retaliate, and the way they retaliated had a direct impact on my income because my only true income was my tips."
Billiel joined about a dozen other activists at the rally and at a Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development hearing later in the day, where supporters testified in favor of legislation that would require all employees be paid the same minimum wage, regardless of whether they receive tips.
"Every day, it felt like I was leered at, whistled at, had comments made about my body. I learned that if I reported it, they would retaliate, and the way they retaliated had a direct impact on my income because my only true income was my tips."Marie Billel, employed in restaurants for 11 years
Massachusetts has one of the largest gaps among all states between the standard minimum wage, currently $12 per hour, and the $4.35 wage that tipped employees must be paid. That trend will persist once increases outlined in last year's so-called "grand bargain" are complete, bringing the rates to $15 and $6.75, respectively.
If the legislation is approved, though, the second rate would gradually scale up until it equals the standard minimum wage by 2027.
"We didn't file this bill for those high-end restaurant workers in the Seaport," said Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, who filed the House version of the bill. "We filed it for those diner workers in Pittsfield and Orange and New Bedford. People who work on tipped wages live in poverty, period."
Farley-Bouvier and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, author of the Senate legislation, described the change as necessary to address gender and racial inequality common in the workforce.
Opponents warn the change would create a burden for business owners and that, particularly in restaurants, the costs would be passed on to customers. Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said employers only pay the lower tipped wage when workers earn enough gratuities to make up the difference.
Accounting for tips, Luz said, Massachusetts servers often report income between $25 and $30 an hour, among the highest rates in the country.
"This is a system that works very well for all involved," he said. "It protects the worker because they always make minimum wage no matter what."
Of the state's 166,000 workers covered by the lower tipped rate, Farley-Bouvier said, 67% are women, including 74% of restaurant servers — but those female servers make less than 80 cents on the dollar compared to their male colleagues.
Seven other states have no difference between tipped and non-tipped minimum wages, but Massachusetts would become the first in the Northeast if it passed such legislation. Both U.S. Reps. Katherine Clark and Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts have also proposed similar changes at the federal level this year.
The legislation would not restrict customers' ability to tip, but it would require employers to pay all employees the same standard minimum wage and allow workers to keep gratuities as a bonus.
Advocates pointed to the other states that have a single minimum wage as examples. Farley-Bouvier said those states see poverty rates 20% lower compared to those with a separate tipped wage and a significant decline in reports of sexual harassment, all without damaging business.
"In California, which is a mecca for restaurants, tipped workers receive the full minimum wage," said Shannon Liss Riordan, a labor attorney who is challenging U.S. Sen. Ed Markey for his seat. "The restaurant industry is alive and well there. There's no reason that Massachusetts should have a separate wage."