Duped by phony grassroots group, restaurant worker found herself lobbying to undermine minimum wage hike

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‘They were feeding us information that was fundamentally untrue’

By TIM ROWDEN
Editor

RESTAURANT WORKERS have a hard job. A bill in the Missouri Senate would make it even harder by undermining last November’s voter-approved minimum wage increase. – Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Jennifer Sawhill, a 29-year-old server at Bartolino’s Osteria on The Hill, has been working in restaurants since she was 14 years old.

In her 15-year career, she’s worked at Sqwires, Square One Brewery, Soda Fountain Square and a number of other restaurants.

Waiting tables, bartending and working as a hostess helped put her through college at Lindenwood University, where she earned a degree in communications in 2013.

After college, when she couldn’t find a full-time job in her degree field, working in restaurants helped her pay the bills.

And in all those years, her tips have made a difference. Which is why she was concerned when Joshua Chaisson, a spokesman from the Restaurant Workers of America (RWA), told her the new minimum wage law approved by Missouri voters last November with the overwhelming passage of Proposition B could result in her losing her tips.

THE TIP CREDIT
Tipped workers in restaurants in Missouri are paid half of the state’s minimum wage but can often make up the difference, and more, in tips. For employers, this arrangement is known as a tip credit. If tipped employees don’t make up the other half of the minimum wage in tips, their employer is required to pay the difference.

Employers like this arrangement because it allows them to keep their labor costs down. A lot of tipped employees like it, too, because it allows them to earn more than they would if they were paid a straight hourly wage.

“We all signed up to make less than the minimum wage because we know that we can make that up in tips,” Sawhill said. “I have a comfortable, sustainable lifestyle because of the tips.”

Sawhill got a small raise following the passage of Prop B, which called for raising the state’s minimum wage a little each year until it reaches $12 an hour in 2023. The first phase of the increase took effect in January, when the minimum wage rose to $8.60 an hour from $7.85. Tipped workers saw their hourly earnings increase from $3.925 to $4.30 an hour, plus tips.

The increase was negligible, Sawhill said, but her tips make the difference.

PHONY GRASSROOTS GROUP LIES TO WORKERS
Sawhill supported Prop B but was alarmed when she heard that it might cause her to lose her tips.

That’s the story Chaisson, the RWA spokesman, was passing around on fliers at various St. Louis area restaurants. The RWA is a 501(c)4, a dark money group that doesn’t have to reveal its donors, but appears to be connected to Rick Berman, a Washington-based lobbyist and former restaurant industry insider who is known for setting up phony grass roots groups like the RWA to give cover to the industries they represent.

Responding to the flier, Sawhill met with Chaisson, who told her and other food servers workers that Prop B would require them to be paid the full minimum wage and lose their tips. It was a lie, but she didn’t know it.

“He said there would be a $12 minimum across the board and that whatever tips we got would be taken away and distributed throughout the restaurant,” Sawhill said.

That lie was Chaisson’s hook to recruit restaurant workers to lobby for passage of Senate Bill 10, sponsored by Sen. Mike Cunningham (R-Rogersville), which would freeze the minimum wage for tipped workers at $4.30 an hour and set the wage for workers under 18 years old at 85 percent of the minimum.

‘FUNDAMENTALLY UNTRUE’
Chaisson convinced Sawhill to go to the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City and lobby alongside Bob Bonney, CEO of the Missouri Restaurant Association, for passage of SB 10.

She grew suspicious though when Bonney only had her visit Republican senators who already seemed to support the measure.

“The information that I had been given began to seem a little fishy,” she said.

Sawhill learned the truth when she called the Department of Labor to find out if the new minimum wage law would require her employer to pay her the full $12 minimum or result in her losing her tips.

The answer, to both questions, was “no.”

“They were feeding us information that was fundamentally untrue,” Sawhill said. “The tip credit was never in jeopardy and everything that they said to get us to go out and speak to senators about something that would fundamentally hurt the employees of the restaurant industry was false.”

Sawhill said she never would have gone to Jefferson City to lobby for SB 10 if she had known what the bill was really about. “It doesn’t make any sense for a worker to lobby for not getting a raise. And asking an 18-year-old or 17-year-old employee to get 85 percent of the minimum wage is ridiculous.

“I’d like SB 10 not to pass,” she said, adding that she would be willing to go to Jefferson City again to lobby against it.

TRYING TO CREATE A SUB-MINIMUM WAGE
Brynne Musser, a 32-year-old server in Kansas City is doing just that.

Musser has been in the industry for 12 years. She has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Kansas and recently graduated with another master’s in graphic information systems from Texas A&M.

Although she has her eyes on another career, working as a server has usually helped her pay her bills. But she has also had to use food stamps to put food on the table.

Musser testified against SB 10 before the Senate’s Small Business and Industry Committee. She was one of only two restaurant workers to testify, although one restaurant manager provided a statement he said was written by one of his servers.

“They had these leading questions where they would ask, like ‘Would you rather have the minimum wage constantly or would you rather have your tips?’ That’s not actually what SB 10 does,” Musser said.

“Republicans in the Missouri legislature are trying to create a sub-minimum wage,” she said.

“This legislation undermines the voters’ intent and overturns their votes. It will cut my pay and force the citizens of Missouri to pay my wages in the form of tips or through government assistance. They’re undermining the will of the people and taking away from the working man.

“This is the hardest job I’ve had,” Musser said. “It’s hard on my body. I have to spend money on shoes that make my knees not hurt. It’s frustrating when you consider how many people do this job, and how many people in power have never had this job. It’s hard work, and we deserve more.”

See related story: Republicans trying to undermine minimum wage decision

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