Workers in LA: tipping the fair wage balance

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Mayor Eric Garcetti has made a minimum wage increase a centerpiece of his tenure, advocating for a rise to $13.25 by 2017. Immediately voices rose up to say, simply, “It’s not enough.” There’s a push on for $15.25 by 2019, with reasonable and timely cost of living increases, and much stricter enforcement. Conscientiously studying this issue, members of the 15-person city council have held four open community meetings to invite public comment.

The last was held Apr. 2 at West L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance. The timing on Holy Thursday, going into Passover starting the next night, and Easter on Sunday, with its transcendent theme of freedom and deliverance, did not escape either the city council panel on the stage nor the 200-plus people from the general public who turned out for the discussion.

Restaurateurs made their presence felt strongly at these hearings, showing up in numbers to make their point. All of them, of course, abhorred wage theft and expressed shock (!) that such practices go on in L.A. A parade of speakers emphasized how honest they are, reporting tips to the IRS and treating all their employees, both front of the house and back of the house, as “family.”

In most cases they do support raising the minimum wage. With their own eyes and ears they witness the crushing burden of poverty wages and no paid sick days. In front of hundreds of fellow citizens at a public forum, they know they would be booed mercilessly – and righteously – for defending the current wage structure for dishwashers and kitchen prep. But for the front of the house, i.e., tipped workers, their slogan is “Make Tips Count.” According to this plan, employers are willing to pay $15 an hour, but they want the differential between the current lower tipped-worker wage and $15 to be made up with tip money. Workers can then keep the rest on top of that, which in some cases, at high-end restaurants or classy bars, can be substantial, maybe upwards of $50 an hour.

Several restaurateurs pointed out that their property leases are tied to income. If business is booming, landlords collect a high gross earnings premium on the baseline monthly rent, sometimes several times that amount. They emphasize that between wages and costs, their profit margin is actually slim, the reason restaurants come and go so quickly. They always bring out the threat – not altogether unrealistic, of course – that higher costs of doing business will result in closures and loss of jobs. But as council member Paul Koretz  – whose father worked as a waiter all his life – said, “If cheaters are driven out of business we’ll happily wave goodbye to them.”

The other prominent group of speakers at these hearings has been the workers themselves who are in desperate need of a raise. “Raising wages raises families,” their lapel stickers read. They have little patience with the owner’s arguments, and disagree about “making tips count.” Many restaurant workers have jobs in modest local ethnic eateries where business is neither high-end nor brisk. Some work in facilities, such as convention centers, where many foreign visitors unfamiliar with American customs, don’t leave tips at all.

And then there is the gender factor. Men tend to get classier jobs at more prestigious locales, and women, at all levels, are subject to every kind of customer harassment. A woman bartending or waiting table seriously has to consider the cut of her dress when she goes to work, whether or not to wear a ring on her finger, how ingratiatingly she has to smile and how fetchingly she needs to do her hair, if she wants to do well on tips that shift.

In any case, as many speakers said, tips are generally shared with other staff, such as busboys, cooks and hostesses. And not all tipped workers do restaurant jobs. Some work in barbershops and hair and nail salons, or they’re masseurs, valets, or carwasheros, and can’t expect an hourly take-home anywhere near the scale of a big, trendy restaurant. And there are going to be slow days and seasonal slumps. According to one speaker, 81 percent of all tipped workers in L.A. make less than $35K a year.

Not everyone showed such empathy with his workforce. One rose to say he came to the U.S. as a poor immigrant and worked hard to become a successful business owner.  He believed workers needed not more money, but more education on financial planning and discipline.

“People who make less than $15 an hour know plenty about money,” said Susan Gosman of the California School Employees Association. “They know what it’s like not to have enough money. Not to have enough money to buy food, to pay rent, to have to work two or more jobs so that they can spend time with their families. The only thing that will work is one fair wage for all.”

It’s not easy to neatly divvy up responsibility for the the wage crisis. Clearly, minimum wage in an unaffordable city is a poverty wage. But why does rent have to consume half or more of a working person’s income? Why is healthcare not free for all? And education up through college and professional training? Why is public transportation so expensive? Why does the cost of feeding a family cause up to a fourth of our children to miss meals and go to bed hungry? Wages are essentially a political question, and it matters which political forces are tipping the balance.

The city council members present at this hearing understand the issues facing the working poor. They are certainly aware that higher wages will reduce government spending on every form of subsidy to the poor. But, as in the case of tips, as council member and former labor official Gil Cedillo said, “Not one size fits all. We can negotiate agreements.” The solution to the wage crisis needs to be effective and work for everybody.

Photo:  Fair wage activists.  |  Eric A. Gordon/PW


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.