Tipped workers to get raises in Missouri
Jefferson City, MO – Thousands of waiters in Missouri could soon get a raise.
Governor Matt Blunt Wednesday ordered the state's Labor Department to reverse and earlier interpretation that had kept many tipped employees from enjoying the recently increased minimum wage.
The sponsors of the ballot question that triggered the raise claim tipped workers should get at least half the new amount under state law, which would amount to $3.25. But the Department of Labor had continued to tell businesses they only needed to pay the federal minimum of $2.13 an hour to such workers.
Blunt says that interpretation was wrong.
The department had continued to defend its position, even as the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University last week released a legal memorandum from six Missouri law professors saying the state's interpretation was wrong.
Missouri law states that employers of tipped workers are not required "to pay wages in excess of 50% of the minimum wage." And a state regulation adds that "the maximum amount of gratuities that an employer can claim as a credit is 50% of the applicable minimum wage rate."
Blunt said his own general counsel also concluded the department's interpretation was wrong.
"Missourians voted to increase the minimum wage, and I have directed the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to immediately clarify that the base wage is not exempt from this mandate," Blunt said in a written statement Wednesday.
Labor department spokeswoman Tammy Cavender said the agency's original interpretation was based on the opinion of its own attorneys and experts. But she said the department would follow the governor's order.
"Certainly our interpretation of the law was inaccurate," Cavender said Wednesday.
An executive at the Missouri Restaurant Association expressed amazement when told of state's new interpretation.
"This is going to be very costly for our industry millions of dollars for the highest paid people they have on their staff already," said Pat Bergauer, the association's executive vice president, who noted food servers already can earn $15 to $30 an hour with tips.
St. Louis waitress Maggi Ellinger-Locke said she had assumed, when gathering petition signatures for the ballot measure last year, that the minimum wage increase would apply to employees who earn tips. She was shocked when the state labor department said otherwise.
So she began backing another campaign dubbed Save Our Tips aimed at persuading the labor department to change its position.
"It would be nice to get the wage myself, but there are a lot of people who really, really need it," she said. "There are lot of single mothers."
The Save Our Tips campaign now plans to monitor restaurants and bars to ensure their workers not only get paid more in the future, but also get back pay for the period during which they were wrongly paid less than $3.25 an hour, said Lara Granich, a spokeswoman for the campaign and director of the Jobs with Justice coalition in St. Louis.