Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut lawmakers will consider this session whether to eliminate a “subminimum wage” for tipped workers like servers and require all employers to pay their staff at least minimum wage, a co-chair of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee said Tuesday.

The soon-to-be raised bill was one of several proposals announced by Senate Democrats during a Tuesday morning press conference in the Legislative Office Building. Labor Committee co-chair Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, said the bill would eliminate Connecticut’s system for paying traditionally tipped employees.

Like many other states, Connecticut allows some employers to pay their tipped workers less than minimum wage by offsetting the pay using what’s called a tip credit. So while Connecticut’s minimum wage is currently $14 per hour and will rise to $15 per hour in June, restaurants may pay servers a “subminimum wage” of $6.38 an hour as long as the server makes at least minimum wage after tips. 

Kushner said the policy, called “One Fair Wage,” has been adopted in at least seven other states and would put tipped workers on a level playing field. 

“Ultimately what we’re finding is that we want to make sure that workers are protected and get a fair wage,” Kushner said. “[A]nd make sure they’re getting the minimum wage, which is often a problem in some of these professions that have tips.”

The gap between Connecticut’s minimum wage and its subminimum wage has grown over the last several years as a 2019 law has incrementally increased the former while leaving the later untouched. 

At the time, the minimum wage was $10.10 and the tipped worker wage was $6.38. Once the minimum wage reaches $15 later this year, the law will tie the wage to the federal employment cost index. During Tuesday’s press conference, Senate President Martin Looney said that gap was a good reason to revisit Connecticut’s subminimum wage. 

Representatives of the restaurant industry argued that the policy would amount to another headwind for a sector that suffered losses during the pandemic and continued struggle with supply chain issues and worker shortages. 

“With that backdrop, it’s extremely important for Connecticut lawmakers to understand that what local restaurants and their employees need right now is stability and support – not complicated new laws and regulations that will make it even harder for restaurants to stay in business,” Scott Dolch, Connecticut Restaurant Association president and CEO, said.

In an interview, Rep. David Rutigliano, a Trumbull Republican who runs six restaurants, argued the change would also be detrimental to servers, who are required to make at least minimum wage and often make well above that. 

“This is a good thing,” Rutigliano said of the current tip credit system. “Where else can you go and work three or four hours and potentially make $30, $40 an hour? That’s what these people are doing. The reality says that’s what this is.”

In Connecticut, employers who hire workers with certain intellectual and developmental disabilities are also permitted to pay those workers a subminimum wage. On Tuesday, Kushner said she expected the bill’s impact on that community would be among the issues vetted during the public hearing process. 

“There’s a wide range of thought on this and advocates on some different sides on this issue, particularly when you get to the IDD community, but I think what we want to do is open up the conversation, have a bill,” Kushner said. “We will raise a bill in labor and we will be taking testimony on all these issues.”

Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, called the proposal an important bill that could support servers, a group of workers who are typically not represented by unions and dependent on patron tips to make ends meet. 

“If somebody is rude to them, if somebody sexually harasses them, they have to grit and bear it with a smile in order to survive and I don’t think that’s the type of workforce that we want to have in this day and age in 2023 — a server that has to grit and bear sexual harassment or harrasment in order to get the tips for them to survive and put food on the table,” Hawthorne said.