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DC is raising its minimum wage for tipped workers. This group wants Maryland to be next.

Mayor Brandon Scott is participating in the “Server for An Hour” event in a show of support for One Fair Wage’s campaign to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers and make Maryland a fair wage state. He serves food to Len Lucchi of Annapolis and Stephanie Anderson of Prince George's County. “Server for an Hour” events are organized by One Fair Wage, a national nonprofit that advocates on behalf of workers earning the subminimum wage for tipped workers.

Proponents for setting a higher minimum wage for workers who earn tips, such as bartenders and restaurant servers, have their sights set on Maryland, after a successful push this year to phase out the tipped minimum wage in Washington, D.C., which is now less than a third of the District’s non-tipped minimum wage.

Representatives of One Fair Wage, a national organization advocating for the change, said Monday that they are planning to work with state lawmakers to introduce a measure targeting what’s known as the tip credit — in which employers use tips to help pay a worker’s wage — in Maryland during next year’s 90-day General Assembly session.

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“Tips should not be a part of anybody’s wage,” said Ifeoma Ezimako, an organizer for One Fair Wage. “Tips should be extra.”

The proposal promises to revive an often contentious debate over whether restaurant workers stand to earn more under the existing system, or under one that would require most restaurant owners to pay a higher proportion of their employees’ income.

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When the question was last raised, as part of an effort to increase Maryland’s overall minimum wage in 2019, many restaurateurs, bartenders and servers turned out to oppose the change, which they said would result in lower pay and disrupt the economics of the dining industry.

The existing tip credit model allows restaurant workers “to make a higher wage than the standard minimum wage,” said Bob Garner, a co-founder of the Glory Days Grill restaurant chain who has opposed previous efforts to eliminate the tipped minimum wage.

“They’re basically messing with it and could ruin it for many people,” Garner said.

Though employers in Maryland are required to pay most hourly workers a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour, the state has a separate minimum wage rate for tipped workers, who earn at least $3.63 an hour from their employer, plus a share of the day’s tips. Under the law, employers are required to cover any difference between the tipped minimum wage and the state’s regular wage floor if a worker does not make enough in tips.

Ifeoma Ezimako, left and Dia King, organizers for One Fair Wage at their press event to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers and make Maryland a fair wage state.

The practice can yield income that far exceeds the minimum wage when restaurant patrons tip generously. But it also can create uncertainty for workers, who might see pay flush with tips one week and lean the next.

In November, Washington, D.C., voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative to phase in a higher minimum wage for tipped workers over a 5-year period. The capital city’s measure will gradually raise the tipped minimum wage there from $5.35 an hour to $16.10 an hour — on par with the minimum wage for other D.C. workers — by 2027.

The tipped wage proposal for Maryland does not yet have a sponsor in the General Assembly but would be structured similarly, said Leonard Lucchi, a lobbyist for One Fair Wage.

The state’s hourly wage floor is on track to increase to $15 by 2025, though Governor-elect Wes Moore has said he wants to accelerate that increase so that it takes effect in 2023.

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On Monday, Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott threw his support behind efforts to phase out the tip credit. The mayor participated in a “server for a day” event organized by One Fair Wage, which had him taking orders and serving dishes at the Busboys and Poets restaurant in Charles Village.

“Workers shouldn’t have to depend on kindness from other people,” said Scott, who said he made tips while working for his family’s Park Heights car wash business in his teens and early twenties. Though the tip credit phase-out would be a statewide measure, the mayor said he plans to advocate for the change in Annapolis.

Paola Martinez, a server at Busboys and Poets, said she thinks the One Fair Wage proposal would benefit her industry peers. Though Busboys pays its servers more than the tipped minimum wage, Martinez said friends who work in other restaurants struggle with inconsistent pay.

“There’s some days when you give your table your all, and [get tipped] nothing,” she said. “If there could be a consistency in that, there would be a big change.”

Supporters of eliminating the tip credit also allege that workers in the industry face wage theft, and are not always paid the minimum wage as required under law.

“If you ask many workers, they probably have not seen the tips that ran on the credit card,” said Ezimako, a former restaurant employee. “Workers are afraid to speak out.”

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State lawmakers, seeking to eliminate the possibility of wage theft in the restaurant industry, included language in a 2019 bill raising Maryland’s minimum wage that requires companies with tipped employees to provide their workers with a breakdown showing how much they earn in base pay and how much they earn in tips. An original version of the 2019 measure also would have phased out the tip credit, but that proposal was removed from the final bill.

Advocates of eliminating the tipped minimum wage point out that the custom of tipping in the United States started after the Civil War as a way to hire formerly enslaved people without having to pay them a base wage.

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“I worked my way through college and didn’t know I was receiving a sub-minimum wage,” Ezimako said. “I just thought that was bar culture. I didn’t understand that it was a legacy of slavery.”

The state’s restaurant industry trade group, meanwhile, counters that the practice ends up benefiting workers.

Melvin Thompson, the Restaurant Association of Maryland’s senior vice president of government affairs, said eliminating the tip credit will push restaurants to raise prices or impose service charges to account for higher payroll costs.

“If the tip credit was eliminated, such a drastic labor cost increase would cause catastrophic effects on full-service restaurants,” Thompson said. “Tipped employees would earn less if employers replaced tipping with a service charge and paid servers a flat hourly wage instead.”

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If Maryland passes a bill to eliminate the tip credit, it will join eight other states — including California, Minnesota and Nevada — and D.C. in approving such a measure.

Fekkak Mamdouh, a co-founder of One Fair Wage, said the organization is working on other ballot initiatives in Arizona and Ohio.

The effort is moving forward “little by little,” Mamdouh said. “It’s going to take some time.”


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