Read another article today, kind of a follow up to the Glens Falls article we discussed a week or so ago, about the effects of NY State upping tipped workers’ minimum wage by 50% by the end of the year. The Saratogian talked to restaurant owners, tipped workers, and customers to get a perspective on the effect on each of them as they see it.
Restaurant owners are nervous about the pay hike of course. They feel that it will be tough for single unit / non chains to compete and/or not to raise prices. Even if they do raise prices they would have to compete with the larger chains who have more resources to implement technology to help reduce the amount of staff they would need, while not impacting service negatively. They feel that fine dining will be the only establishments able to go on as a single unit operation as their clientele will be able to absorb the price hikes with no problem.
Tipped workers are mixed on the whole thing. Some think it will help them cover some of their taxes. Whereas others say they never pay attention to their paycheck and only rely on tips for income. Some also felt that service may suffer some as there will be less of an incentive to give great service.
The customers for the most part said the raise won’t affect the way they tip. They will tip the same as they do now based on the service they get. Although nothing was mentioned how they would feel about a price hike.
Tipped restaurant and bar employees making minimum wage in New York State are in for a 50 percent raise at the end of the year, but this change is expected to have a much larger impact on the industry than a few extra bucks in the workers’ pockets.
The current minimum wage for waiters and bartenders throughout the state is $5 per hour. On Dec. 31, 2015 that will change to $7.50 an hour. This is still less than the untipped worker’s pay current rate of $8 and hour, which is also set to increase to $9 in 2016.
The final decision to raise the tipped workers’ rate was made by acting Labor Commissioner Mario Musolino last month. “It increases wages for those who have been without a raise for far too long,” Musolino wrote in his ruling.
However, some are criticizing that the move is not small business friendly, despite Governor Andrew Cuomo’s expressed goals to improve the small business climate.
Though the raise may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, it adds up. For one full time employee, paying the $2.50 more per hour calculates to $100 extra per employee, per work week. In a year, one full time employee will cost $5,200 extra. If a medium-sized restaurant has 10 full time waiters, bussers and bartenders, that equates to $52,000 a year, on top of their already-existing expenses.
Workers, management and tippers all have different perspectives on the decision.
Though The Purple Pub in Maplewood appreciates its staff and find them to be deserving, the minimum wage raise is putting the business in a tough position, said general manager Drew Rentz. The medium-sized restaurant, which offers lunch and dinner six days a week, has about 30 employees total, and 15 to 17 of them are tipped. As food costs go up, and well as minimum wage, which is what the pub’s tipped workers make upon entry, “There’s only so much we can do,” he said.
Rentz wishes to keep menu prices at a reasonable rate for customers without cutting back on quality or quantity. But with minimum wage increases, “It’s going to back us into a corner where we may have to start raising prices, or we may have to reduce some staff,” he said.
When the restaurant opened in 1972, minimum wage was $1.60. Also, a burger at the pub was just 45 cents. In the restaurant’s 43-year history it’s seen many changes, but “It just seems like in the last several years, and the next several years to come, there’s a drastic increase,” Rentz said.
“We’ve been here for 43 years and hope to be here for 43 years more,” Rentz said, but without resources like the chain restaurants have, “every year it just gets to be tougher and tougher and tougher.”
Already, Rentz said, “There’s not many mom and pop places left.”
The founder agrees, “It’s just becoming extremely hard to run a small business with all the regulations,” co-owner Greg Rentz said. “It’s entirely different than it was when we started 40 years ago.”
The Purple Pub predicts this change will cost it between $500 and $600 dollars per week, which converts to $25,000 to $35,000 per year. Put simply, “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Greg Rentz said.
The restaurant’s workers recognize it as a problem, too. “I think it’s going to change the entire industry,” said Ken DuBois, a bartender at the pub. When DuBois first started working at the restaurant 20 years ago, tipped workers’ wages were about $2.50. Soon, it will be three times that amount.
As a tipped employee soon to be getting a raise, “I could care less about it going up,” Dubois said. Most tipped employees in the business don’t even look at their paycheck, he said. “They rely on their tips for income.”
Even though he’ll be getting more money, DuBois isn’t particularly excited. “I’m not disappointed in it, but I see it damaging the industry in the future, and that’s what scares me,” he said.
Those tips, though split between the Purple Pub employees, are reflective of the level of patron satisfaction. DuBois always strives to provide top notch customer service. However, with state government giving every tipped worker a 50 percent pay increase, DuBois is concerned that others may not learn the hard work ethic it takes to actually earn and deserve the raise. “If they’re lazy already, they’re just going to be lazier, and it’s harder for somebody that actually works hard to get what they’re worth,” he said.
For customers, if menu prices stay the same that could mean quality of food at locally owned restaurants could drop. “If it keeps going up, corporate businesses are going to have an advantage, especially in New York state, because they buy stuff in so much bulk that they can sell something cheaper than small businesses are going to be able to,” DuBois said.
“Part of the American dream is coming here and starting your own business, and it’s just going to be crushed by corporate America in New York state,” DuBois said. Looking even further, “At some point I see privately owned businesses just being fine dining, and everything else being corporate if it continues this trend,” he continued. “It’s sad.”
Upscale downtown Saratoga Springs restaurant Sperry’s will be affected, too. As a small business, “It does hurt us,” said general manager Seth Berger, who has been in the industry for 26 years. “New York is rather tough as it is right now with taxes.” While it could eventually lead to price increases on the menu, he doesn’t expect it to effect restaurant’s volume of business.
The 13 year-round waiters, waitresses and bartenders at Sperry’s, “They live off their tips,” Berger said. The good news for them is that the clientele at Sperry’s aren’t likely to tip less than average, as long as service is good.
“It seems a little foolish,” said Sperry’s co-owner Scott Johnson, “for New York state to be putting small businesses at greater risk and more burden.” The former Saratoga Springs mayor continued, “Unfortunately, this is but another example of New York State putting more burden on small businesses that are already over taxed. It’s the classic phrase of ‘penny wise but pound foolish,’ when considering the potentially negative impact to tipped employees not getting the maximum tips from patrons aware of the increased wage. It’s well known that tipped employees rely more on tips, for their livelihood, than minimum wage.”
As a former restaurant owner who used to own Daisy Baker’s in Troy and now bartends at Sperry’s, Jared Horton knows both sides of the business and has mixed feelings on the wage increase. “I went from being an employer to an employee, and I am now in the group of workers who the increase is supposed to benefit,” he said. “If I still owned my restaurant, I would have to increase prices across the board to offset the increased labor cost. I would figure a 15 to 20 percent increase depending on the menu item.” Now as an employee, Horton said of course he will appreciate a higher wage. “The question is whether or not customers will tip less after the wage increase; I certainly don’t expect that to happen at the place I work. In fact, if menu prices go up, I might even expect total gratuities to go up. It certainly depends on the the place you work, and what type of customers it draws.”
“At this point I see it almost impossible for the small, independently operated businesses to survive,” said Michael Coleman of Wilton. Having worked in the restaurant industry for many years, he predicts menu price increases resulting in less business, and eventually less restaurants for New Yorkers to enjoy.
Former Troy Cafe owner Sarah Fish noted that in addition to hourly wage increases, payroll taxes and insurances will increase in proportion to the labor hour costs. “A fifty percent increase in pay comes with other costs, and to absorb that kind of increase means prices will go up,” she predicted. Furthermore, “It will definitely hurt smaller businesses.”
Another unfortunate factor, Fish recognized, is an unhappy kitchen staff that did not receive a 50 percent raise, and already likely make less than servers once tips are considered. Rentz said he thinks his tipped staffed probably makes significantly more than his other employees at the end of the day, as is also true in many other establishments.
But will customers catch on? In Europe, it’s less common to tip well, or even tip at all, because workers tipped and untipped make the same wages.