Evanston restaurant owners are opposing a council member’s proposal to raise Evanston’s minimum wage and guarantee that tipped workers would earn at least the new minimum.
At a town hall meeting at the Civic Center Thursday, Amy Morton, who owns the upscale dining spots LeTour and The Barn, said the restaurant industry hires people “with no college education, hires people without a high school education.”
“We are an industry that when people commit and can show up on time,” Morton said, “They can go from a dishwasher to a restaurant owner. There’s no other industry in the world that creates opportunities like that.”
She said changing the subminimum wage would hurt workers, most of whom work in restaurants to subsidize the life they want to live, as opposed to fulfilling a professional calling.
But Nataki Rhodes, a Chicago-based organizer with the activist group One Fair Wage, said she was forced into low-wage work after losing a $60,000 a year job.
She said she considered herself a professional. She said she has taken classes in the hospitality field to improve her skills at the low wage jobs she has had to take. She said that many workers like her use their restaurant earnings to support their families.
“I had to actually raise my son” on low wage restaurant work. “To say it’s OK to make a living off of low wages and just rely solely on tips, that’s not fair.”
Evanston does not currently have its own minimum wage ordinance, and so is governed by the Cook County ordinance that sets the minimum wage at $13.70, slightly above the statewide minimum of $13.00.
An ordinance proposed by Ald. Devon Reid (8th) would raise the minimum wage in Evanston this year to $16 an hour for businesses with more than 50 employees, and a buck less for smaller firms, with further increases in future years.
That would raise Evanston’s minimums to be roughly equivalent to those in the City of Chicago.
What drew much of the fire from restaurant owners was a provision that would eliminate the lower minimum wage for tipped workers.
Derek Gaspar, who owns The Lucky Platter restaurant, said his workers were doing well under the current wage structure and were concerned they would wind up making less money under the proposed minimum wage plan.
Saru Jayaraman, president of activist group One Fair Wage, claimed that nationally “over 5,000 restaurants” and “200 in the Chicago area” have raised wages voluntarily to $15 an hour or higher plus tips in response to the pandemic-triggered exodus of workers from the industry.
She said Evanston stood to lose restaurant workers as higher minimum wages become available in surrounding communities like Chicago.
Jayaraman said studies of restaurants in communities that have adopted a “fair wage” approach for tipped workers don’t bear out that employees typically make less money than under the traditional subminimum wage system.
Julie Matthei, who owns Hewn bakery, took a conciliatory tone.
“One way to get everyone more aligned on this is to put some measures into effect that also help small business owners,” she said, like lowering the liquor tax, lowering parking fees and lowering sales taxes.
“It would really be helpful if there was a little bit of give and take,” Matthei said. “Maybe we wouldn’t have to raise our prices as much if there was a little bit of help from the city on some of these other things we have to pay.”
Update 7/14/23: Reid’s plan as presented at an Economic Development Committee meeting in May would have only required restaurant owners to make up any shortfall between the lower, tipped wage and the regular minimum wage that the employees hadn’t received in tips. He now says he wants to completely eliminating the lower, tipped wage, so employers wouldn’t be able to count an employee’s tips toward meeting their payroll obligation.
That’s in line with an effort endorsed Thursday by Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson to eliminate the lower, tipped wage there.
The proposed ordinance is scheduled to be reviewed by the Human Services Committee at its Aug. 21 meeting.