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Ballot measure filed to raise Michigan’s minimum wage

HOUGHTON — On Tuesday afternoon, the Raise the Wage Michigan Ballot Committee hosted a virtual press conference to announce the official filing of ballot measure language to increase Michigan’s minimum wage to $15 per hour for all workers.

The new proposal, which was filed with the Michigan Bureau of Elections, would raise the state minimum wage – currently $9.65 per hour – by $1 each year.

Under this proposal, the hourly wage would climb to $11 in 2023, and reach $15 in 2027. After reaching the $15 target, the wage would be automatically adjusted for inflation each year.

“One of the problems we’ve had with a minimum wage is the lack of an inflationary adjustment,” said attorney Mark Brewer, who represents the Raise the Wage Michigan Ballot Committee. “This proposal bakes that in, so that we no longer need drives like this or legislative action. It [the wage] will automatically increase by the rate of inflation every calendar year.”

The proposed language would also abolish the sub-minimum wage for workers who receive tips or gratuities. Currently, Michigan businesses are only required to pay tipped workers a minimum wage of $3.67 per hour.

Instead, the proposal would close the wage gap between tipped and non-tipped workers over the course of six years, so that both groups receive the same $15 hourly wage by 2028.

“They can still continue to receive tips and gratuities on top of that wage, but they will be guaranteed that minimum wage thereafter including the inflationary adjustments,” explained Brewer.

“There are also protections in this proposal to ensure that those tips and gratuities remain the property of those employees,” he continued. “Unfortunately, we have employers who believe it is their right to divert some of those tips and gratuities to management personnel among others. This says those tips and gratuities belong to those workers unless they voluntarily agree to share them.”

Lastly, the group’s proposal would abolish the sub-minimum wage for workers under the age of 20, and workers with disabilities.

On Jan. 1, 2022, Michigan’s minimum wage will climb to $9.87, an increase of 22 cents. For tipped workers, the hourly wage will increase by 8 cents to $3.75. But according to the Raise the Wage Michigan Ballot Committee’s press release, Michiganders could have seen their minimum wage rise to $12 an hour in 2022, had a 2018 ballot initiative been passed.

The press release states that after a successful campaign gathered enough signatures to put the issue before voters in 2018, Republicans controlling the Michigan state legislature sabotaged the effort and removed the measure from the ballot.

“What we know is that every time we put this on the ballot in Michigan, every time we collect signatures, this is the most popular issue that exists in the state. Everybody overwhelmingly agrees that people deserve to be paid a fair living wage when they work,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and President of the national non-profit One Fair Wage.

During the Tuesday event, Jayaraman advocated for the Michigan proposal alongside restaurant owners, restaurant workers, and other supporters of the initiative.

“The restaurant industry has had the lowest paying jobs for generations, largely due to the money, power and influence of a trade lobby call the National Restaurant Association, which has argued since emancipation of slavery that they shouldn’t have to pay their own workers,” she said. “At emancipation, they demanded the right to hire newly freed slaves, not pay them anything, and have them live on a newfangled thing that had just come from Europe, called tipping.”

According to Jayaraman, tipping originated in Europe, where it was used as a bonus on top of wages. But in the U.S., employers began using tips to replace wages altogether.

“That became law in 1938 as part of the New Deal when everybody got the right to the minimum wage for the first time, except for black women tipped workers who were told you get a $0 wage as long as tips bring you to the full minimum wage,” she continued.

Jayaraman said that restaurant workers’ reliance on tips is also partially to blame for frequent instances of sexual harassment. Restaurant workers experience the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the U.S., and over two-thirds of Michigan tipped restaurant workers are women. Due to low base wages, these workers are often forced to tolerate harassment in order to receive tips.

Jayaraman also reflected on the added struggles faced by minimum wage workers during the pandemic. She said that six million U.S. restaurant workers lost their jobs during the pandemic, and many were unable to acquire unemployment insurance because the $3.50 non-tipped minimum wage was too low to qualify.

“To date we have counted one million restaurant workers who have left the industry and of those who remain, we’ve surveyed thousands in Michigan and 54% say they’re leaving and 78%, nearly eight in 10, say the only thing that would make them come back or stay working in restaurants is a full livable wage with tips on top,” she said.

These figures come from a report published by One Fair Wage and the University of California-Berkeley Food Labor Research Center.

In addition to discussing the ills of Michigan’s low minimum wage, Jayaraman highlighted wage-raising success stories from other states.

“Meanwhile, there have been seven states including very nearby Minnesota that have required a full minimum wage with tips on top for decades,” she said. “Minnesota has had higher restaurant sales, job growth, higher small business growth rates in the restaurant industry, higher overall restaurant industry job growth rates, everything has been better in Minnesota. The truth is that the states have flourished and have lost fewer restaurants during the pandemic than Michigan because consumer spending is higher.”

“This is no longer just about an injustice. It’s become a life or death matter for many workers and it’s become a life or death matter for the industry,” she concluded.

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