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Consider servers during city/county restaurant weeks [Commentary]

Diners rejoice! Baltimore City is celebrating its summer Restaurant Week through Aug. 10, and Baltimore County restaurants kick off their celebration Friday. The events offer a great way to discover new places and fresh tastes or revisit old favorites at a discount.

But while you're enjoying your meal, consider the servers and restaurant staff who make the dining experience. During the last Maryland General Assembly session, workers who rely on tips for salary were dealt a harsh blow when legislators permanently froze their pay at $3.63 per hour. Previously, tipped workers earned 50 percent of the minimum wage, but as the state's lowest wage goes up to $10.10 per hour by 2018, the earnings of tipped workers will be stagnant.

Compounding this economic injury is the fact that 78 percent of restaurant workers nationally do not earn paid sick leave. That means if restaurant employees are sick or need to care for a child or loved one, they have to take unpaid leave and risk losing their jobs.

We can do better for restaurant employees. A measure to give most workers the opportunity to earn up to seven sick days annually has been introduced in the Maryland General Assembly for the last two years and is expected to be a leading issue during the next legislative session. The Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act also includes protections so that employees can take sick leave without fear of job loss. At the same time, there is appetite among legislators to undo the freeze on pay for tipped workers.

The Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act is opposed by many restaurant owners, who flexed their political muscle last session by forcing the wage freeze on tipped workers. Lobbyists painted an unrealistic picture for lawmakers of tipped restaurant workers going home at the end of their shifts with pockets stuffed with cash from tips. The reality is that the median hourly wage for restaurant servers in Maryland is just $8.80 per hour. And while employers are supposed to make up the difference if tips are insufficient to bring workers up to minimum wage, enforcement of that law is virtually non-existent.Nationally, tipped workers are more than twice as likely to fall under the federal poverty line — and nearly three times as likely to rely on food stamps — as the average worker.

Keeping tipped wages low would seem to be beneficial for restaurant owners, but depressing pay actually doesn't benefit anyone — including customers. Patrons subsidize the restaurant's labor costs, making servers dependent on tips, which are notoriously variable. When tipped workers don't make enough, they access social services to make ends meet. Nationally, nearly half of tipped workers use public benefits, according to a study released by the Economic Policy Institute in July. And business owners would actually benefit from paying higher wages by creating a more stable and productive workforce.

Similarly, giving restaurant workers the right to earn paid sick days and extending job protections benefits workers, customers and owners. A poll conducted by the Public Welfare Foundation found that nearly 25 percent of adults reported being threatened with job loss or actually losing a job because of lack of paid sick time to care for themselves or a family member. For a typical family without access to paid sick days, just three days without pay is equivalent to losing an entire month's grocery budget. That's a powerful incentive for workers to make the rational economic decision to go to work sick rather than lose pay. But this leads to sicker workers and higher emergency room usage as well as the potential for spreading illnesses — possibly to your family on a night out to dinner. During 2009's flu pandemic, as many as eight million employees went to work and may have infected seven million more.

So while you're enjoying the restaurant weeks, consider the public health and other economic benefits of supporting higher wages for tipped workers and paid sick days. It's a delicious and healthy recipe for stronger workers, families and communities.

Charly Carter is the executive director of Maryland Working Families. Her email is ccarter@workingfamilies.org

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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