Lower Valley restaurant workers will be seeing a slight increase in their pay envelopes as of Jan. 1, the date the state minimum wage will rise to $7.16. But the increase, designed to help create living wages for entry level workers, may be more of a problem than a help to restaurant workers, according to Washington Restaurant Association (WRA) President Gene Vosberg.
Vosberg said Washington restaurants are in an economic crisis, as costs rise and profit margins fall. Restaurants are being forced to cut labor costs, he said.
He said the WRA will propose reforms to the 2004 legislature to give relief to help restaurateurs cope with the nation's highest minimum wages.
He said because waitresses usually receive tips, in addition to a base wage, the association is seeking to have tips included as a part of the worker's minimum wage.
"The federal government and 43 states already count tips towards the calculation of minimum wages," he explained.
Even the Washington Department of Labor and Industries counts tips as wages when calculating workers compensation benefits, he explained.
"However, Washington restaurants are prohibited from counting tips toward the state minimum wage payments," Vosberg said.
"We are proposing the state allow a restaurant owner to pay a tipped employee 50 percent of the state minimum wage as their base wage, so long as the employee makes at least the minimum wage in tips alone," said Vosberg.
But while that may work well in Seattle and Spokane areas, 14-year veteran waitress Jerrianne Mata of Sunnyside isn't sure that would be practical in the Yakima Valley.
"We have to claim 8 percent when we report our tips on our (federal) income tax reports, but we don't always make 8 percent in tips," said Mata, who has worked the past six years at the Sunny Spot Restaurant in Sunnyside.
"It really doesn't average out even though most of our clients are good tippers," she said.
Sunny Spot Restaurant owner Gary Hooks of Sunnyside fears the damage of the new wage increase will not be on the existing labor force, but any new hires he may consider.
Entry level workers' chances of getting jobs will be limited if they are to be paid the same as experienced workers, he said.
"One good waitress is worth two green waitresses while they are learning the job," Hooks said. "But you have to pay both the same."
Hooks said the increases won't hurt his popular Yakima Valley Highway eatery, but he can see where it will hurt fast food restaurants which rely on unskilled labor for its labor forces.
"Kids trying to get a job may have more difficulty getting the minimum wage job with the increases,"' he said.
The restaurants will be forced to pay beginning fast food workers the same wage as some waitresses who have been working for several years, said Dean Stokes, owner of the Sunnyside Burger Ranch Restaurant on Yakima Valley Highway.
"I try to get my minimum wage workers off that spot as quickly as possible," he said.
"But I also expect more than minimum work before I pay a bit more. I'm very selective about who I hire," Stokes added.
He fears if restaurant owners are forced to pay more for inexperienced, beginning workers, consumers will have to get used to paying a bit more for their meals, he said.
Jim Thompson, owner of Sunnyside's Marie's Country Kitchen, said the possibility of using a waitress's projected tips as part of her income may be a good thing.
"We used to be able to do that," he said. "I hope the WRA will be able to get the legislature to change the minimum wage law," he said.
"Many restaurants simply cannot continue to incur additional salary costs and hope to say alive," Thompson said.
The increase, which raises the minimum wage of $6.90 to $7.16, is part of an automatic minimum wage increase which has occurred each of the past six years. Restaurants will also absorb worker's compensation tax increases of 10 percent this year, in addition to the 26 percent increases last year.
"They are paying more in unemployment insurance tax, in addition to the ever increasing health and business liability insurance premiums," said Vosberg.
According to Vosberg, the WRA proposals are similar to those proposed in 2003, which received substantial support from legislators, but were not adopted.
. Julia Hart can be contacted at
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