Minimum-wage fight also about gender equity

Waitress Dominique Rubalcaba takes an order at Lowbrau in midtown Sacramento in 2013.
Waitress Dominique Rubalcaba takes an order at Lowbrau in midtown Sacramento in 2013. Sacramento Bee file

Recent groundbreaking state legislation makes it illegal to pay women less than men for substantially similar work – a big step toward equalizing pay between genders. But in Sacramento, the discussion about minimum wage is going in the other direction.

The proposal before the City Council would increase the wage to $12.50 by 2020, but also create a “total compensation” model for tipped workers. That would write gender-based wage inequality into city law because the majority of tipped workers in Sacramento are women.

Add in a proposal from a lobbying group that advocates an exemption for sit-down eateries that serve alcohol if “total compensation” is rejected, and we are also creating a second class of local restaurants. The high-end spots with liquor licenses (largely owned by men) would pay lower wages, while our cafes, bakeries and coffee shops (with more female owners) would pay full minimum wage.

Both of these proposals, whether the proponents know it or not, represent gender discrimination.

There are about 24,000 tipped workers in Sacramento, including 14,500 in restaurants, according to federal numbers compiled by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United. Among tipped employees, 62 percent are women and 50 percent are Asian, black or Latino.

This workforce is one of the poorest in our city. While about 9 percent of all workers in Sacramento live in poverty, that number skyrockets to 20 percent for all tipped workers, and 24 percent for tipped restaurant workers. On average, they are taking home about $19,500 a year. Under “total compensation,” even these low wages would be unpredictable.

The proposed ordinance places all the power in the hands of employers. The loose rules of “total compensation” would allow unscrupulous employers to use it to intimidate workers and steal wages – or worse. Do we really want waitresses, nail salon workers, spa employees, hairdressers and others to be at the mercy of their bosses when it comes to just how little they’ll be paid?

The restaurant industry is the single biggest source of sexual harassment claims, according to the One Fair Wage campaign. Seven percent of women work in restaurants, but those women file an astounding 37 percent of sexual harassment complaints.

Some backing this ordinance would like us to believe that it’s necessary to protect our local restaurants and small businesses. But it would actually add to their burdens. Every 14 days, employers would have to figure out and document in writing which employees made enough in tips to lower their pay. That paperwork is going to be enormous for small business, a cost we should take into consideration.

And creating a law that gives special breaks to a few enterprises is unfair to every small-business owner in town. Restaurants are tough to run, but so are other businesses – auto shops, mail stops and retail stores, to name a few. They all struggle, they all have high failure rates, they all have entrepreneurs who must work hard to stay in the black.

As has been reported in The Bee, the “total compensation” provision is being heavily pushed by the California Restaurant Association, is likely illegal and would invite litigation. Why would the City Council want to do that?

If we’re going to raise the minimum wage in Sacramento, let’s do it fairly and for all who work here.

Heather Fargo is a former mayor of Sacramento.