Debate over restaurant servers is the new political ‘all-you-can-eat buffet’ issue in governor’s race

A seemingly off-hand comment by Tom Emmer about servers who make $100,000 a year has become sort of the all-you-can-eat buffet of Minnesota’s gubernatorial race.

Both Emmer, the Republican Party’s endorsed candidate, and DFLers keep going back to the table for a few more bites.

Emmer, who last week seemed to suggest that servers who receive tips shouldn’t be paid a full minimum wage base, has helped keep the issue alive with a made-for-TV event. He went “undercover” as a waiter for a couple of hours, a way of showing his empathy for the servers of the world.

Additionally, he has scheduled a meeting with servers for Wednesday at the Ol’ Mexico Restaurante in Roseville, at which time he’ll explain his positions on tips and minimum wages and the restaurant business in general.

Along the way, Emmer also has come out with a number of statements, starting with the fact that the media got his original comment about $100,000 waiters wrong. Since then, he’s said he wouldn’t ever propose lowering the minimum wage of waiters, but as the minimum increases for other workers, he would favor holding servers to the current rate.

Today he came out with another plan for servers and the restaurants that employ them. He proposed to eliminate the state income tax on the first $20,000 in tips collected by workers.

“Tips should be between the customer and the server,” Emmer said in a statement, “and state government has no business reaching in and taking a portion of that income.”

Tom Emmer
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Tom Emmer

Servers wouldn’t be the only people in the restaurant business who would benefit under Emmer’s newest plan. Restaurants would be allowed the same sales tax deductions for capital equipment other business receive. The new plan also would eliminate “the tax penalty” restaurants currently pay when they give their employees free meals. Currently, Emmer said, businesses are required to pay a tax on free meals provided to employees.

He called that “an outrageous tax grab.”

DFL gubernatorial candidates, of course, have been feasting on Emmer’s initial remarks about highly paid servers, continually pointing out that the average full-time server in Minnesota is paid less than $20,000 a year, including tips.

Today, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the DFL’s endorsed candidate, staged a news conference with servers who support her campaign.

“Last week, he said they make too much,” scoffed Kelliher. “What he offered is no different than stealing their tip money off the table.”

Asked about the newest proposal to come from the Emmer camp, Kelliher laughed.

“When I heard that proposal, I thought, ‘Hmm, he must be getting a lot of tips from Republican consultants.’ He keeps going around and around on this issue. I’d say you could call it spin.”

Both sides are trying to make this issue emblematic of something greater than the tips you and I leave servers.

DFLers, of course, are saying that it shows that Emmer is out of touch with everyday working people in Minnesota.

And though he has repeatedly said, “I have not proposed reducing the minimum wage,” DFLers have pointed out how in 2005 Emmer, as a state representative, proposed eliminating the minimum wage entirely.

For his part, Emmer is countering by saying he’s sensitive to both bosses and workers.

“Both businesses and wage earners are hurting in this economy, and it’s time somebody finds solutions that help everybody.”


But Kelliher suggests that the various positions Emmer has tossed out in the last few days indicate that Emmer must have offended members of his own party with the $100,000 crack.

“When he said it, he hit a nerve with a lot of people,” Kelliher said. “People are mad as hell at this issue. … And we’re saying he has many positions, like this, that are out of step with mainstream Minnesota.”

Among those watching this all unfold has been Wade Luneburg, political director of UNITE HERE!, which represents servers.

He was at Kelliher’s news event today and plans to be at Emmer’s meeting with servers Wednesday.

This issue, he said, has taken on a life of its own because it’s something everyone can understand.

“Everybody knows a waiter, or was a waiter at one time,” Luneburg said. “When he took on this issue, most people understand he was taking on the lowest wage workers in the state. Is that the way he’s going to fix Minnesota’s economy?”

Then, Luneburg smiled. Given the number of positions Emmer has seemed to come up with in the last couple of days regarding servers, he thinks maybe we’ll see a complete turn-around by week’s end.

“By the time he’s done moving around, maybe he’ll be supporting doubling the minimum wage,” Luneburg said.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/13/2010 - 06:15 pm.

    Re: Rep. Emmer as a food server, One waffle to go please….

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/13/2010 - 08:21 pm.

    Emmer may or may not be out of step with mainstream Minnesota, whatever that may be. He’s certainly out of step with me, which I’m sure will cause him many a sleepless night.

    I know he’s studied taxation at the federal level; it was a required course at his alma mater, William Mitchell, when he was enrolled. The fact that it doesn’t seem to have taken is some cause for alarm. Both the state and the feds define income very broadly and impose tax on that income. Some benefits are excluded from income, including but not limited to things provided to the employee for the employer’s benefit (think about that luxurious cabin sheepherders once spent the winter in). Employees’ meals are not provided for the employer’s benefit, any more than those year-end bonuses some of us used to see or the personal use of employer vehicles.

    If he wants to exempt employer provided meals, there’s a long list of other perks that can be added. And a long line of people who will be happy to show him the list.

  3. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 07/13/2010 - 08:37 pm.

    <> Wow!

    My head is hurting. Could this be one of Mr. Emmer’s covert strategies to pull the servers up into the $100,000 income bracket? And when they reach there, whammo … slap them with a tax cut for the rich! Brilliant.

    Now, serve me a strawberry cheesecake for dessert!

  4. Submitted by Lance Groth on 07/13/2010 - 10:02 pm.

    LOL – Emmer is floppin’ like a crappie. I have to admit I’m thoroughly enjoying the show.

    But as to his latest epiphany – exempting the tips from taxes – I’d like an equivalent portion of my income exempted as well. I’m sure everyone else would too.

    Someone ought to tell this guy that when you’re already deep in a hole, it’s time to stop digging (but I hope and expect that he won’t…)

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 07/13/2010 - 10:55 pm.

    I take this whole debacle to be a strong indication of how Princeling Tom would operate as governor…

    Shoot off your mouth while shooting from the hip, then over correct to change course when you think people are upset by what you’ve done, then over correct to change course when people get upset over how you over corrected the first time… lather, rinse, repeat.

    In my opinion, we need a governor who will choose a sensible course for beginning to rebuild our state, then follow that course as closely as his/her ability as a salesperson and political realities will allow.

    What we don’t need is a governor who will bounce around like a pinball in your average old fashioned arcade game.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/14/2010 - 08:08 am.

    //“When he took on this issue, most people understand he was taking on the lowest wage workers in the state. Is that the way he’s going to fix Minnesota’s economy?”

    Uh, yeah. That’s magic plan economics, cut taxes, stomp on the poorest and weakest people you can find, and wait for the magic to happen. That’s what Pawlenty and others have been doing for 8-10 years. To our shame, it’s worked politically, these guys keep winning elections with this class warfare, apparently to few Minnesotan’s have cared about the poor and defenseless Minnesotan’s thus far stomped on. Emmer simply appears to have miscalculated the weakness of servers. His other problem is he seems to have fallen for his own propaganda thinking that he really does represent a majority opinion. He acts like his statements which certainly appeal to his base, will appeal to the majority of voters. The question remains, will the Democrats produce a candidate that’s not to lame to win a three way election.

  7. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 07/14/2010 - 08:41 am.

    Well, Emmer put his foot in his mouth on this one. The only question is…do you want it rare, medium or burnt to a crisp, sir?

    If tipping is his basic issue, then certainly seems appropriate to ask…

    A:What type to tipper are you…cheap to middlin’?
    B:Do you consider tipping a form of terrorism?
    C:Is lesser-being theory part of your philosophy, that some deserve more; like public figures, political wannabes etc…others are there to merely serve you?

    Doesn’t sound too democratic to me.

    And talking about tipping…lobbyists,corporations are mucho-big tippers and try snarling about their funds tipped to politicians on the campaign trail, and after…we are all tippers and receivers in one way or another.

    Where would you be without some of those funds/tips…more than ice in your water glass to be sure goes down on that one?

    And don’t forget the collection plate on Sunday…we all receive tips one way or another.

    You’re just a ‘prayer’ away from raising the greater issue…who’s tipping whom, for what?

  8. Submitted by Colin Lee on 07/14/2010 - 10:30 am.

    As long as Emmer is serving, waffles are today’s special. Emmer thinks effectively garnishing tips is going to create server jobs. Is anyone going to explain to him that our economy doesn’t work that way?

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the number one state for waiter jobs per capita is Nevada. The number one state for bartender jobs per capita is Montana. Neither state has Emmer’s tip penalty, even though 43 other states do.

    Emmer should read about Henry Ford. Ford wrote in 1922 that paying his workers a higher minimum wage would mean that more workers could afford his automobiles and that the whole regional economy would benefit from a higher standard of living. He also was an early advocate for the forty-hour work week, arguing that this change dramatically reduced turnover in his factories and lowered costs for training and hiring new talent. Emmer wants to challenge this logic, but Ford has the last laugh. Ford is the only surviving auto manufacturer from the 1920s.

  9. Submitted by Neil Orton on 07/14/2010 - 12:38 pm.

    I guess chalk one up for the unions because Mr. Emmer is too wishy washy. You can’t please everyone. He shouldn’t have made such a stupid comment about server wages, but I do agree with his original stance that servers should not get the full minimum wage. This guy is done, the GOP should pick someone who can stand behind their beliefs instead of trying to pander to everyone. Unions will be the death of this country just look at what they have done to Washington.

  10. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 07/14/2010 - 02:31 pm.

    In addition to reading Henry Ford, Mr.Emmer might try Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” to see how life is for low-wage workers — those who often have to work two or three jobs (none with benefits, so pray for good health) but never earn enough to take their kids out to a movie or have a meal out except at a high salt/high fat fast food restaurant or buy clothes anywhere but at GoodWill or garage sales.

    It’s not a lifestyle he or most of us would want ever to be forced into. Unless, of course, we were servers whose basic wage was lowered to $2.19.

  11. Submitted by Glenn Mesaros on 07/14/2010 - 04:29 pm.

    While the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse stalk the American landscape: Depression, desperation, death, and destitution, the candidates for state and federal office are debating whether the waiters on the Titanic are being over or under paid. Pretty soon, they will be under water.

  12. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/14/2010 - 11:38 pm.

    “While the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse stalk the American landscape: Depression, desperation, death, and destitution, the candidates for state and federal office are debating whether the waiters on the Titanic are being over or under paid. Pretty soon, they will be under water.”

    You act like this is a dinky issue. What people get paid is actually a core issue, wouldn’t you think? Cutting the wages of people at the bottom sounds pretty life and death to me. Supporting the tip penalty and thinking there a bunch of waiters making $100,000 shows Emmer is out of touch with people who have to work for a living. Up against Kelliher, who has had to struggle and get her hands dirty, it doesn’t look good for him.

  13. Submitted by Neil Orton on 07/15/2010 - 09:32 am.

    Cry me a river, out of the two online reports I’ve read regarding this issue there are more bleeding hearts than ever up there in MN. I love the line from Caddyshack “the world needs ditch diggers too”. If you don’t like being a server in a restaurant and making $20K a year, then go do something else. The majority of the servers in this country do not make the full minimum wage…what makes the restaurant industry in MN so special?

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/15/2010 - 09:39 am.

    //Up against Kelliher, who has had to struggle and get her hands dirty, it doesn’t look good for him.

    Kelliher’s household income is $150,000 a year. Struggling “mom” she’s not. I’m just sayin. She’s arguing against Dayton’s tax increases because she thinks $150,00 a year may be a typical working families income (combined income of a cop and a teacher I think it was?). Emmer’s clearly out of touch but Kelliher’s made some goofy statements as well, not as goofy, but goofy.

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