Tom Emmer goes after food server wages

Based on his statements yesterday, it seems Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Tom Emmer has never worked in the restaurant business. At the Eagle Street Grille in St. Paul he proposed that restaurant owners should pay a lower minimum wage (often called a "waiter wage," and typically half the standard, but federal law permits states a wage as low as $2.13 per hour) to servers who earn big bucks from tips.

Emmer referred to some Eagle Street employees who make more than $100,000 a year--but one of the Grille's owners stated that only a "couple" of the restaurant's nearly 50 servers make that much.

Sure, there are some servers who make six-figure wages (try Manny's, for starters), but they're the exception, not the rule. Emmer's out-of-touch statements were immediately refuted in the blogosphere:

MPR's Bob Collins provided some useful context:

Are these employees victimizing the restaurant owners? Let's do the math: Someone making $5.25 (the minimum wage for small businesses) in Minnesota, working 40 hours a week, taking no vacations, grosses $10,920 a year. Someone making $89,080 in tips at 20% of the bill (minus alcohol) means the establishment has billed the customers of that waitperson $445,400, not including alcohol. The restaurant is reaping $214.32 an hour return on a $5.25 labor investment in the wait staff. Chances are, there are no benefits being paid.

Emmer apparently cited a 2008 Hospitality Minnesota survey of restaurant owners that suggested servers make an average of $15.43 an hour, plus gratuities. Wha? MinnPost's Doug Grow cites Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development stats that seem more reliable:

The median wage for the 45,000 waiters and waitresses in the state is $9.36 an hour, including tips, meaning that if a server is working full time, he or she could make a little more than $19,000 a year. In the Twin Cities, servers do a little better--the median hourly wage is $10.57. But the waiter in southwestern Minnesota is being paid less than $8 an hour, including tips, according to the state's statistics.

Grow talked to Wade Luneburg, secretary treasurer of Local 17, which represents food/beverage servers, who pointed out the fact that only a tiny fraction of servers receive extra benefits, such as health care coverage. Luneburg also pointed out that the days of servers under-reporting their tips to the IRS are basically over, now that about 80 percent of diners pay with plastic.

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