Servers, restaurant owners might sue Minneapolis over minimum wage plan

A group of servers is planning to sue Minneapolis over its proposed minimum wage hike -- and restaurant owners might follow suit.

A group of servers is planning to sue Minneapolis over its proposed minimum wage hike -- and restaurant owners might follow suit. Jeff Wheeler Star Tribune

The Minneapolis City Council's minimum wage proposal will get its public debut in a hearing this Thursday afternoon. 

Council members will take up a draft ordinance that would, in its current form, raise the lowest legal wage in the city to $15 an hour by 2021. All indications say Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and a majority of council members are on board. 

Thursday's hearing is devoted to public comments on the draft plan, which the council is scheduled to pass before the end of this month. Expect plenty of comments to come from the city's restaurant industry, where many vocal owners, servers, and bartenders have lobbied for the city to impose a tip credit, which they say will protect tipped employees from diminished wages under a raised minimum wage.

The current draft does not contain a tip credit provision, and Hodges and its authors have said they are not interested in adding one. Some, including Hodges, refer to the policy as a "tip penalty." If those they remain unconvinced after Thursday, the next place city officials hear about the tip credit could be in court. 

Serving Those Serving, a new 501(c)4 nonprofit, has been raising funds to spend in support of a tip credit, according to Sarah Webster Norton, a server/manager at Jun restaurant and an organizer in the pro-tip credit movement.

Webster Norton said she'd be opening a bank account Wednesday and depositing its first round of donations, adding its supporters are "right there with their checkbooks," and thinks the group could raise  "a lot of money" for its cause. Originally intended as a lobbying effort, now the outfit is consulting with attorneys about suing the city.

Webster Norton says "business owners" have been the principal donors so far -- as a 501(c)4, Serving Those Serving isn't obligated to specifically identify its backers -- and she's confident additional support will be there, should the legal battle stretch into the future.

"There's also a lot of talk around town of employers doing the same exact thing," Webster Norton says. "We're talking about hitting them two-fold, with a class action suit for us, as employees, and from our employers." 

Survey results issued Monday by Pathway to 15, a group consisting of over 100 local restaurants supporting instatement of a tip credit, says 89 percent of its members would enact "changes to staffing hours and levels" if a $15 minimum went into effect, and 62 percent would "eliminate some current employee positions." 

Webster Norton says the idea of suing came from a similar server group in Maine, where pro-tip credit workers had considered suing after a statewide vote passed in November. (The Maine outfit backed off that plan when lawmakers hastily took up revisions to restore the tip credit.) 

"They were ready with a lawsuit, and their lawsuit is based on wage losses," says Webster Norton, who says her Minneapolis-based group would look to sue under similar grounds, claiming "projected wage losses."

Webster Norton says a wage increase should go to non-tripped employees, and that servers "don't need" it, quoting the Minnesota Restaurant Association's statistic that tipped restaurant workers earn an average of $28.00-plus per hour. (Hodges, for her part, has cited Bureau of Labor statistics which say "only 10 percent" of tipped restaurant employees  in the metro area make more than $15 an hour.) 

Webster Norton is meeting with a team of attorneys this week to discuss the proposed suit. 

"It's going to take us a week or two with the attorneys to get this figured out... it's revolutionary, and it hasn't been done yet," says Webster Norton, who added: "It's possible even that the threat of it will make [Minneapolis] change their minds, we don't know."

Reached for comment, a spokesman for Betsy Hodges said the mayor's office "doesn't comment on litigation, pending or otherwise."

The draft ordinance increase will be presented to the city council at 3:00 p.m. Thursday by the city attorney's office, with a public hearing to follow at 3:30.

Minneapolis residents can communicate their feelings on the minimum wage to the city council by emailing [email protected]