A bill announced this week by the Florida Senate Commerce and Tourism committee would allow employers to pay tipped workers, waiters, and waitresses, a lower minimum wage than what is currently authorized in Florida.

The Orlando Sentinel reported Tuesday that the measure “would slash Florida’s minimum wage for tipped workers — now $4.65 an hour — to the federal tipped minimum of $2.13 for companies that agree to guarantee that with wages and tips their employees will make at least $9.98 an hour.”

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association ”supports” the proposal, writing: “This issue is not about minimum wage as we know it. It is about tipped employees, specifically restaurant workers some of which are the second-highest-paid group in our industry.” The Association adds: “Proposed Committee Bill 7210 allows the employer an option to re-align tipped wages with the federal level, in turn guaranteeing a higher minimum wage.”

According to Noah Warman, an attorney at Sugarman & Susskind who represents labor unions and workers, the bill says, “instead of paying the higher Florida minimum wage for tipped workers ($4.65 an hour),” let restaurants “use the federal rate ($2.13 an hour).”

Warman says that if, for example, a restaurant server is earning $6 an hour in tips, the employer could pay him or her $3.98 an hour (below the current $4.65 standard) to reach the $9.98 minimum. According to Warman, if a server is already making $7 or $8 per hour in tips, the proposed Senate bill “will be a wage cut for that worker, because the worker is losing the $2.52 differential that he is always guaranteed under Florida law.”

A South Florida restaurant worker and labor organizer, who has researched restaurant labor conditions in South Florida and asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retaliation, tells the Independent that under current law minimum wage rises with the inflation index ”and last year several organizations had to file a lawsuit [so] the state would increase the minimum wage.”

He works as a server assistant in a fine dining restaurant in Miami, where he makes an above-average salary, adding that about half of his coworkers, including waiters, who work full time, have a second job.

On Friday, his restaurant served about 220 people. “All you do is move, you have no time to think, you carry things and at the end, [the servers] earned about $70 in tips,” he says.

“Every two weeks I get my check for hours and every Friday we get the check for tips,” he says. “My last tips check after working three double shifts with one day off was for $380. If I didn’t work double shifts on Thursday, Friday, and on Saturday from 4 p.m. through 1 a.m., my tips check would have been about $200.”

He tells the Independent that the tips pool is set up so “servers get 74 percent of tips and server assistants to get 24 percent of those tips.”

According to our source, entrées at the restaurant can cost up to $50, and one even costs $120. “So I don’t know how much the restaurant is making,” he says, but there are nights when “I make $50.”

The Restaurant and Lodging Association wrote in early January that “Florida businesses can no longer afford to continue to increase the pay of tipped employees who make well over the minimum wage,” saying the organization was “in discussions with Senate and House leadership regarding a possible legislative constitutional amendment that, if passed, would appear on a statewide ballot to change that requirement.”

The Association added in its press release issued Tuesday that the new proposed bill “will prevent restaurateurs from taking drastic measures by either laying off workers or relocating to other states.”

According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s December, jobs report the leisure and hospitality industry had the second largest job growth in 2011, adding 30,400 jobs, 23,500 of which were in the food services and drinking sector.

Emily Eisenhauer, an associate researcher at Florida International University, tells The Independent that “these are the same concerns that industry leaders had when Florida voters passed” the constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage with the annual inflation rate in 2004.

Eisenhauer says that employment data shows that raising the minimum wage has created no “dip in the employment, no increase in unemployment, even in retail and leisure and hospitality industries that depend heavily on low wage employment,” adding that “it doesn’t appear to have any effect on the overall economy.”

According to Eisenhauer, minimum wage increases that “have averaged 19 cents a year in the last six years” are an adjustment for inflation: “Last year it was a six-cent increase, and this year it’s a 36 cent increase, which brings the minimum to $7.67, which is higher than the federal minimum but lower than 11 other states.”

“I think the annual increases are an efficient and straightforward way of making sure the minimum wage keeps its value,” Eisenhauer says.

“Now we’re trying to climb out of a great recession,” she says. “When the minimum wage was passed in 1938 it was a similar situation. … In order to get the economy back on track, we need to have people earning to buy the goods and services we have in the economy.”

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