The United Conservative Party (UCP) proposal to cut the minimum wage for some restaurant workers has strong critics within the industry.
On Feb. 13, during a speech to Edmonton restaurant owners, UCP leader Jason Kenney said that the party would consider lowering the minimum wagefor youth and alcohol servers.
Kenney made the remarks during an event by lobbyist group Restaurants Canada.
He claimed servers told him they prefer a lower wage because they would then get more hours and therefore more tips.
Neil Mason, who worked as a manager with Joey’s Restaurants for four years and is now a bartender at a Cactus Club, disputed that idea.
In Mason’s experience, while some workers make “a lot of money,” tipping is not a guaranteed wage.
“People are going to struggle, because tipping is subjective.”
“Your business model is garbage”
Daniel Huber, an Edmonton-area chef and former restaurateur who now works as an industry consultant, called the idea that tipping creates a living wage “absurd.”
In part, Huber said, this is due to the practice of “house tipping”, where servers pay a percentage of their earnings each day to owners.
In August 2018, Huber launched a social media campaign to end this practice. Huber also launched an Alberta Federation of Labour effort to organize restaurant workers at FairServe.ca.
Mason noted the minimum wage was $8.75 an hour when he started in the industry, and it has since risen to $15 an hour.
The increase to $15 an hour in October 2018 was also vigorously opposed by the restaurants lobby and some owners, who proceeded to blame it for restaurant closures.
Huber said that owners advocating for lower wages were “dinosaurs” attached to a “dying business model,” adding that Restaurants Canada was “90 per cent big chains.” He said that these restaurants were failing to adapt to the new models of the industry, including services like SkipTheDishes.
“If you can’t handle paying people what they’re worth, your business model is garbage,” said Huber.
He said that these wages were “a drop in the bucket compared to other costs”, and was “disappointed in the mom-and-pop” restaurants that signed on to the proposal.
Calgary brewery insists on living wage already
One Calgary restaurant manager/chef, in the business for over 20 years, also vigorously disagreed with Restaurants Canada and Kenney.
Jay Potter, executive chef and operations manager for Prairie Dog Brewing, has worked in kitchens since the age of 14 and has always believed in a living wage for workers. Prairie Dog pays all of its employees at least $17 an hour and makes clear to customers tipping is optional.
“When we opened our doors in June 2018, we knew the minimum wage hike was coming. We weren’t concerned about it, though,” said Potter in an email.
“The first job I had at Taco Bell just over 20 years ago, I was making $6.85 an hour. After six months of working there, I was given a ‘raise’ of $0.05 an hour,” he recalled.
“No matter how hard I worked at that job, I still felt expendable and extremely underpaid.”
Huber echoed the idea that restaurant workers have always been exploited.
“This industry has been a punching bag for the last 40 years,” he said.
While Potter believes Restaurants Canada “has done a lot of good work for independent restaurateurs”, his restaurant “simply [does] not agree with their stance on lowering the minimum wage and having those deserving workers depend on the kindness of restaurant guests to supplement their income with tips.”
No one-size-fits-all wage approach to restaurant workers
Mason said that different restaurant workers have different experiences, and that he was “fortunate to work in a restaurant that’s always busy, and is an expensive place to eat.”
He acknowledged that since the minimum wage increase was introduced, servers’ section sizes increased, resulting in fewer shifts.
But because “it’s so subjective based on the place you work in”, Mason was in favour of maintaining the status quo.
“It’s not fair to discriminate against someone’s wage because of the industry they work in,” said Mason.
Huber and Mason acknowledged it is harder than ever to open a restaurant. Huber partially criticized the provincial carbon tax for this.
“We bend over backwards for the oil-and-gas industry, which pragmatically makes sense, but when it comes to something like this, it’s like, let’s knock a couple bucks off a disabled person’s wage, or kid working in the same job, instead of providing tangible support for the restaurant industry,” said Huber.