The state Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee passed a bill Thursday that would allow employers to pay tipped workers, waiters and waitresses, a lower minimum wage than what is currently authorized in Florida.

“We are being brave and bold and being statesmen and not politicians,” said the committee chair, state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice. Detert added that the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association brought the idea for the bill to the Senate committee in an effort to make sure restaurants survive, noting that the bill makes the new minimum wage optional.

Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Restaurant and Lodging Association, said that “during the last week there have been many reports that misreported” about the bill. Dover said restaurants want to keep employees, but the 118 percent increase in their wage since 2004, when voters approved a constitutional amendment to tie minimum wage increases to the inflation index, is hurting the industry.

State Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, pointed out that many restaurant workers are low-wage workers, and Detert added that many workers are employed at restaurants like Cracker Barrel or Denny’s and not high-end restaurants, earning large amounts on tips.

Dover responded by saying that because the bill requires owners to secure a $10 minimum it would increase wages for restaurant workers who make less money now. Dover argued that data shows that labor costs are a major contributor to businesses closing down, and that under this bill there will be a reduction in federal taxes.

A member of the Restaurant and Lodging Association said workers would not make less money and owners would pay less taxes. Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce both stated their support for the bill.

Rich Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO said that after numerous investigations his organization opposes the bill because it has not found any negative effect from the wage rate for tipped workers. Templin said that Florida ranks No. 3 in restaurant growth and sales growth, according to National Restaurant Association.

Templin said that tipped workers have a high poverty rate among workers across the U.S., and his group found a potential $2.52 reduction in tipped workers’ wage rate if the bill passes.

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.”

South Florida Jobs with Justice, which supports organized labor and workers, will hold an event Friday to protest OSI Restaurant Partners, owners of Outback Steakhouse, over the company’s support for the Senate bill.

In a press release issued Thursday, South Florida Jobs with Justice writes: “Join us on Friday to leaflet the Outback Steakhouse to tell them that workers can’t survive on $2.13 an hour!”

The “portfolio of brands” of OSI Restaurant Partners, headquartered in Tampa, “consists of Outback Steakhouse units throughout the U.S., as well as Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine.” The company says it operates in 49 states and 24 countries around the world.

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