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Emmer’s minimum-wage fallout: Who makes $100,000 as a waiter or bartender?

Wage stats from the state indicate that those $100,000 servers are the rarest of people.

Before quitting your current job and rushing off to grab one of those $100,000-a-year careers as a restaurant waiter or bartender, you might want to take a deep breath and look at some numbers.

Tom Emmer, the Republican Party’s endorsed candidate for governor, raised the issue of $100,000-a-year servers Monday at the Eagle Street Grill, a hot spot when there’s an event at the Xcel Center. Emmer, who believes that minimum wage workers who receive tips should have their minimum hourly wages reduced, said that the owner of the Eagle Street Grill told him that three of the restaurant’s servers are taking home more than $100,000 a year.

Not surprisingly, Emmer’s contention raised eyebrows among DFL gubernatorial candidates and those familiar with the financial realities of food and beverage servers.

“I think I’ll quit my job and grab one of those,” said Nancy Goldman, president of Local 17 of UNITE HERE, which represents about 600 food and beverage servers, mostly in Twin Cities and Rochester. “I want to know where the hell those jobs are. I think we’re going to be getting a lot of calls from our people today wondering why they aren’t making anywhere close to $100,000.”

Indeed, if those $100,000 a year servers are receiving 20 percent tips, it means they’re dishing out $500,000 in food and beverages.

Goldman alternately laughed incredulously and sputtered with indignation when she considered the $100,000-a-year server.

“I suppose it is possible, just possible, that at a very few places you could have a server making serious money,” she said. “But that almost means that the owner of the restaurant is doing very, very well because he’s selling a helluva lot of food.”

Median wage for waiters and waitresses
Wage stats from Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) indicate that those $100,000 servers are the rarest of people.

The median wage for the 45,000 waiters and waitresses in the state is $9.36 an hour, including tips, meaning that if a server is working full time, he or she could make a little more than $19,000 a year. In the Twin Cities, servers do a little better — the median hourly wage is $10.57. But the waiter in southwestern Minnesota is being paid less than $8 an hour, including tips, according to the state’s statistics.

Tom Emmer
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Tom Emmer

These numbers are better than the national average, but certainly not high enough to keep a family out of poverty and, of course, not anywhere near that $100,000 number Emmer was talking about.

“What part of lousy doesn’t he understand?” said Kris Jacobs, executive director of the JOBS NOW Coalition, which advocates for sustainable wage jobs. “Emmer is as deaf to reality as anyone I’ve known. … Rich waitresses! Can you imagine believing that?”

But Emmer is making the point that federal law allows states to drop the minimum wage to $2.13 an hour for those making more than $30 a month in gratuities. Minnesota is among the few states that doesn’t allow that adjustment, meaning that at small restaurants, with low gross revenues, employers must pay the prevailing minimum wage of $5.25 an hour. At larger establishments, with higher grosses, the minimum is $6.15.

Emmer says that because Minnesota doesn’t adjust the minimum wage to reflect tips, consumers in the state pay more when they go out to eat. In fact, DEED stats show that Minnesota servers receive about $1 an hour more than servers nationally.

It should be noted that the DEED numbers are dramatically lower than the numbers being cited by Emmer on Monday. He said that a Hospitality Minnesota survey of restaurant owners in 2008 showed that servers make an average of $15.43 an hour, plus gratuities.

But any way you cut it, outside a handful of workers at a handful of pricey establishments, $100,000 a year for a server isn’t even in the realm of imagination.

Other benefits
Wade Luneburg, secretary treasurer of Local 17, said that only a small fraction of servers receive any extra benefits, such as health care coverage.

“I guess the good news is that those $100,000-a-year workers he’s talking about can afford their own health coverage,” Luneburg said.

Once upon a time, there was a hidden perk to those making a portion of their income on tips. They could easily under-report the amount they were making on gratuities to the IRS.

“The idea of workers taking home a bundle of cash and not reporting is bull,” he said. “More than 80 per cent of the people who go to a restaurant pay with plastic now.”

It should be noted that Local 17 has endorsed Margaret Anderson Kelliher for governor. She blasted Emmer’s suggestion that there should be a minimum wage adjustment, as did her primary opponents Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza.

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