Higher Minimum Wage for Tipped Workers Debated

March 13, 2019, 6:07 p.m. ·

Sen. Megan Hunt discusses the minimum wage Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The minimum wage for tipped workers, like waiters and waitresses, would rise from $2.13 an hour, under a proposal debated in the Nebraska Legislature today/Wednesday. And the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill to strengthen prosecutors’ abilities to go after sex traffickers.

Nebraska’s minimum wage for most workers is nine dollars an hour. But for those whose income involves tips, like waiters and waitresses, it’s $2.13 an hour, a figure that has not changed since 1991. Restaurant owners are supposed to make up the difference if tips don’t bring total pay up to $9, but Sen. Megan Hunt says they often don’t. She’s proposing to raise the tipped minimum wage, with an amendment that would take it to $4.50 an hour.

Hunt said low wages hurt taxpayers. “Restaurant servers – the group that stands to benefit the most from this legislation -- are three times more likely to live in poverty than the general workforce, and two times more likely to be on SNAP or Medicaid,” she said. “The responsibility to support these workers has shifted to us, the taxpayers, when really it should be on the business owners.”

Sen. Andrew LaGrone opposed the bill, which he said conflicts with the free market system. “Government should not be mandating to businesses what they have to spend on a certain thing – in this instance, labor costs associated with their business enterprise,” he said.

Sen. Steve Halloran used to run a HuHot Mongolian Grill restaurant in Billings, Montana and now owns franchises in other states. Halloran said increasing the wage and relying less on tips would hurt employees’ incentive to perform their jobs well. Halloran asked his colleagues how they would tip a server if they received poor service. “Do you reward them for being inadequate in their service to you? Do you incentivize them by rewarding them for doing a poor job? That’s what this is really ultimately all about,” he said.

Hunt said restaurant servers, who are disproportionately female, have to put up with harassment in order to try and maximize tips. “No worker is going to give worse service if we raise the minimum wage to $4.50 an hour. We know that what we’re going to do instead is to decrease the amount of crap that these women have to put up with to earn a living wage,” she said.

Senators adjourned for the day without reaching a first-round vote on the bill. Debate on the measure is expected to resume Thursday.

Wednesday afternoon, the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on a proposal to strengthen prosecutors’ ability to go after sex traffickers. A bill by Sen. Julie Slama would give prosecutors permission to use electronic surveillance on sex or labor traffickers.

Anna Brewer of the Nebraska Attorney General’s sex trafficking task force said the bill would help. “I am currently investigating a group that has been communicating using electronic devices. This group has been recruiting teenage girls from local high schools in the greater Omaha area and luring them into sex trafficking. In this investigation if I had the ability to intercept their communications, I would have been able to rescue at least 20 females from daily sexual abuse and rape. I would have been able to identify the traffickers and arrest the buyers,” she said, adding “There is no better evidence that one’s own words.”

Spike Eickholt, representing criminal defense attorneys, objected to another part of the bill, which would replace the current three year statute of limitations for prosecuting trafficking offenses. It would extend that limit to seven years if the victim is 18 or older, and there would be no time limit if the victim is younger than 18. Eickholt said statutes of limitation exist for a reason. “Older cases are difficult to prosecute, but they’re also very difficult to defend. That’s one purpose of the statute of limitations – it provides some sort of finality… and at some point, a person ought to be free of risk of prosecution,” he said. The committee took no immediate action on the bill.