Beyond establishing a floor below which no one should be allowed to sink, should the state involve itself in setting wages for certain types of workers? That is the real question that should be asked as the General Assembly’s Labor Committee hears testimony about increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers.

For most workers, the minimum wage in Connecticut is now $9.15 an hour and is slated to rise to $10.10 per hour by 2017. But for tipped workers — mostly waiters and waitresses who serve our food in restaurants or pizza deliverers and the like — the minimum wage is only $5.78 an hour.

If approved, the legislation would affect about 26,940 waiters and waitresses in Connecticut, according to the state Department of Labor.

So if you have a bad week on the floor or had the misfortune of serving tightwad after tightwad, in theory you might take home well less than the minimum wage. But in practice, as Nicole Griffin of the Connecticut Restaurant Association testified before the Labor Committee, the state of Connecticut requires that your employer make up the difference between the $5.78 per hour, whatever you make in tips and the minimum wage for other workers. In other words, food servers cannot earn less than the minimum wage other workers make regardless of whether the tips are good.

So increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers while still allowing tipping is really treating tipped employees as a different class of worker who deserves to make more than the minimum wage many others must settle for. This is particularly strange since food servers already make an average of $10.53 an hour, including tips, well above the existing minimum wage, according to the labor department’s latest Occupational Employment Statistics survey.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that’s enough to live comfortably on, or that tipped workers have it made, but I am wondering why it’s the state’s business to see that some workers make more than others. Perhaps surprisingly, though, there is precedent.

When the General Assembly passed the Education Enhancement Act of 1986, a minimum wage of $20,000 per year was set for beginning teachers, almost doubling some teacher salaries at that time.

And the state’s prevailing wage law essentially sets a special floor on wages for public construction projects costing more than $100,000 for renovations or $400,000 for new buildings. Depending on the locality of the work and the type of worker, the prevailing wage in Connecticut runs anywhere from $25 to $50 an hour plus mandated benefits, which greatly increases the cost of, say, putting in new sidewalks in a small town.

Beyond the minimum wage, I stand opposed to having the state set wages for anything. These matters should be a point of negotiation between labor and management.

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Moreover, I’m glad this debate has started because it’s given me a perfect opportunity to tee off on one of my pet peeves. Why do tipped employees exist at all in this day and age?

First of all, it is the height of condescension to suggest that good service will only be rendered if the customer bribes the worker into delivering it. Don’t food servers, barbers, hairdressers, bellhops, maids and valet parkers have sufficient pride in themselves to be prompt, polite and efficient without a tip? My snowplow man and my letter carrier certainly do.

I’d love to see tipping eliminated, those workers paid better wages and their employers set honest prices to match. But the dirty little secret is that tipped employees themselves would probably object to such a system. After all, increased wages in lieu of tips would be taxable, whereas I’m told by people in the restaurant business that waitresses only report about 10 percent of their cash tips. So higher wages without tipping could actually be an income killer for those workers since their tax liability would increase. But for obvious reasons, no tipped worker would want to say that in polite company. 😉

In most European and Asian countries, tipping is either discouraged or much less generous than it is the United States. But servers are better compensated, so any money left on the table amounts to little more than a small thank you.

Instead, we limp along with a system in which after a meal, when we would rather just be on our way, we have to evaluate the level of service we received and calculate an appropriate gratuity, all the while wondering whether we left the right amount.

Tipping is, as one columnist recently put it, “an obligation masquerading as an option.” Take the customer out of the equation and delegate compensation to where it belongs: as a matter of negotiation between employer and employee, as it is in almost every other field of occupation.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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