POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Activists call for a $15 minimum wage bill that includes tipped restaurant workers

It’s doubtful actor Jane Fonda ever faced the financial anguish familiar to New Jersey’s minimum wage earners, who each make less than $18,000 a year. But Fonda brought her star power to amp up a roomful of volunteers in Newark who’ll lobby Jersey lawmakers to raise New Jersey’s current $8.60 hourly wage to $15, including tipped restaurant servers.

“Seventy percent are women, 40 percent are single moms. They struggle with the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry because they must tolerate all kinds of inappropriate customer behavior to feed their families in tips,” said Saru Jayaraman, co founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

“When women get paid a fair wage, they’re not treated the same, and they won’t put up with it, if they’re treated badly,” Fonda said.

Political ground troops in the Fight for $15 will push Jersey to join California, Massachusetts and New York City. The leaders of Jersey’s Democratic trifecta support a $15 minimum wage, but Gov. Phil Murphy wants a clean bill with no carve-outs. Senate President Steve Sweeney’s mentioned exemptions for farm and youth workers, and Speaker Craig Coughlin noted he would consider phasing in certain workers. That’s unacceptable to organized labor emboldened by victories on Election Day.

“We created that blue wave, we kicked ass, and now we’re kicking ass in New Jersey, and it starts with $15 an hour with no carve-outs,” said CWA State Director Hetty Rosenstein.

Federal law mandates tipped workers must earn $2.13 an hour. Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter’s bill would raise that to $15 in New Jersey.

“To make sure that tipped workers are not excluded. $2.13 in New Jersey, one of the most expensive states to live in, is unacceptable, intolerable,” Sumter said.

New Jersey’s powerful restaurant lobby says, “ … going to $15 in a short time period will have a negative impact on our industry, especially our small independent restaurants. An increase over four to five years, combined with a 90-day training wage and seasonal wages, are important as well.”

The industry also claims New Jersey restaurant owners must pay tipped workers at least New Jersey’s minimum wage, but banquet server Brian Kulas says that rarely happens.

“It’s completely unpredictable. You never really know how much you’re going to make on any given day as a server,” said Kulas. “A lot of times, we’re afraid to go to our bosses because these are the very people who schedule our shifts. We’re always, often, I’ve been in that position before, afraid of retaliation.”

“What we are trying to do is not only increase the economic stability of millions in New Jersey, but we’re also building the momentum needed for national change,” said New Jersey Working Families Executive Director Analillia Mejia.

With the entire Assembly up for reelection next year, it’ll be a lively political debate.