Hundreds of low-wage workers, business owners and activists descended on Minneapolis City Hall Thursday to testify about the proposed citywide $15 minimum wage, packing the council chambers as demonstrators supporting the wage hike chanted and beat drums outside the door.
The hearing was the last chance for the public to weigh in on the minimum wage proposal, which has become a high-profile issue at City Hall, in the Minneapolis business community and on the campaign trail as a progressive field of council and mayoral hopefuls races toward Election Day in November.
“At the end of the day, everybody here wants to help people do better in their lives,” said Pat Forciea, president of Hell’s Kitchen restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. “But boy oh boy, it’s been a frustrating debate to watch play out.”
The debate has been less about whether the minimum wage should increase than about how and when. Local activists connected to the national organization 15 Now have pushed for a $15 minimum wage for all workers, as soon as possible. They’ve come head-to-head with small-business owners, especially those in the restaurant industry, who say a one-size-fits-all wage increase won’t work for them.
The City Council is expected to vote on the minimum wage ordinance by the end of the month, a decision that will affect hundreds of businesses and thousands of workers.
If the ordinance passes, Minneapolis will join other cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., that have passed similar ordinances and are phasing in wage increases over time. None has yet reached the full $15 wage, so it’s tough to predict what effect the increase could ultimately have here.
The Minneapolis City Council released a proposed minimum wage ordinance June 6. It would require both large and small businesses to pay $15 an hour by the summer of 2022, without counting tips as wages. Younger workers could be paid a “training wage” for 90 days rather than the full $15.
Speaker after speaker who came before the City Council Thursday spoke in favor of raising the minimum wage. Many talked about the stress of working two or three jobs to make ends meet.
But supporters of the wage increase have also taken issue with the details of the proposed ordinance.
Eli Edleson-Stein, a server and food runner at a Minneapolis restaurant, said he would like to see the wage increase phased in before 2022 and doesn’t support the lower training wage. But he’s OK with tips not being counted as income, he said, even though it could affect how much he earns.
“Right now, I work part-time as a server in a fine-dining restaurant, and I make pretty good tips,” he said. “But I know ... most folks don’t start in that position.”
Many Minneapolis restaurant workers disagree, saying the industry’s profit margins are too small to support a $15 minimum wage if tips aren’t counted toward the total. During the hearing, Sarah Webster Norton of Service Industry Staff for Change submitted a petition with more than 2,000 signatures in support of a tip credit.
Webster Norton said she worked her way up from a job at TGI Fridays, where she worked to put her husband through school when they were young parents.
“I’d be damned if I let this black-and-white, one-size-fits-all approach slaughter this business that I love,” she said.
Trouble with tipping
The tip credit has been one of the most divisive parts of the minimum wage debate. Before the hearing began Thursday, supporters and opponents of the tip credit clashed in the council chambers and in the hot, crowded hallway outside.
In March, the Minnesota Restaurant Industry launched Pathway to $15, a campaign to count tips toward a $15 minimum wage. In a recent Pathway to $15 survey of more than 100 Minneapolis restaurant owners, the vast majority said they plan to raise prices, reduce staffing or change their tipping model if the ordinance passes without a tip credit.
But the tip credit faces opposition from city leaders, including Mayor Betsy Hodges. In late February, Hodges published an online essay that described tipping as a legacy of slavery.
Carlos Parra moved from Mexico with his parents and four siblings at age 6 and watched his parents work low-wage jobs to support the family. His father now makes $13 working in a plant nursery, he said, and his mother makes $10 an hour working as a cook and cashier in a small restaurant.
Parra said he’s advocating for the $15 minimum wage without a tip credit because of families like his.
“I really do care for families, especially people around my mom and dad’s age who worked so hard,” he said. “Workers are the ones who move the businesses.”