|By Sandra Pedicini, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 16, 2012--A bill that would slash the minimum wage for many restaurant servers, bartenders, parking attendants and others who rely heavily on tips passed a state Senate committee Thursday, drawing fire from lower-income Floridians.
The Senate's Commerce and Tourism committee voted 5-1 to approve the bill (SB 2106) that would allow restaurants to pay the federal tip minimum of $2.13 instead of Florida's rate of $4.65. To qualify, companies would have to guarantee that employees would make at least $9.98 an hour, when tips are included.
Opponents say the bill would cut wages for workers such as Charles Spencer, who's working his way through school by waiting tables at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Downtown Disney.
He said his pay of between $11 and $12 an hour pays the bills -- but barely.
"It's a lot of canned vegetables and grilled chicken and ramen noodles," said Spencer, 25, adding, "I was rather appalled by the fact they're going to try to cut a wage standard in this economy."
Paying just $2.13 an hour would be going back in time, said Annie Wolford, a server at a downtown Mount Dora restaurant.
"After all the inflation, the economy's tanking, everyone's finances are in disarray, (and) we're going to cut down servers back to what they were making ... years ago," said Wolford, who makes about $20,000 a year.
"That base pay is actually really important," said Wolford, 39, whose budget is so tight she cannot afford health insurance.
Michael Coberly, who a couple of months ago started working as a parking attendant at the Peabody Hotel, said his hourly wage allows him to get medical plan.
"If you cut my hourly wage in half," said Coberly, a 25-year-old diabetic, "I wouldn't have enough to pay for my health insurance."
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association proposed the bill and argues that it's necessary. It says the minimum wage, which under state law rises annually to cover inflation, is among the expenses financially crippling restaurants in Florida.
The trade group also contends many employees don't need the higher minimum wage because they make so much in tips.
Supporters also point out not all tipped employees would be affected. Less-expensive restaurants would likely keep paying $4.65 an hour, since they couldn't guarantee their employees would make enough in tips.
The National Employment Law Project, an advocate for low-wage workers, says employees need the money, and the restaurant industry is doing just fine. It points to National Restaurant Association projections last year saying Florida and Texas will show the nation's strongest restaurant job growth over the next decade.
Tampa-based OSI Restaurant Partners, which owns Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba's, supports the bill. But the world's largest casual-dining company, Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, said this week the legislation is getting rushed through too quickly.
The company acknowledges that it is grappling with the rising minimum wage, but "we don't think now is the time" for the legislation, Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers said.
That's partly "because of the situation with the economy and impact it would have," he said, but also because the proposal needs more discussion.
The bill was introduced by the committee last week -- halfway through the legislative session -- and is scheduled to go next to the Regulated Industries Committee. It does not have a House companion.
Carol Dover, chief executive officer of the restaurant and lodging association, said many restaurants she has talked to said they would keep current employees at the higher rate.
But in an industry with high turnover, it wouldn't be long before many new employees would be making $2.13 an hour -- a rate that has remained unchanged since 1991, critics said.
"It's basically just more reason for them to try to hire new people, cut the hours [of existing workers] and get somebody to change jobs," Spencer said. "Restaurants don't have to fire people. They just start cutting shifts."
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