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Minnesota restaurants want break on tipped workers

Minnesota restaurateurs, sensing an opportunity with the new Republican House majority and fresh signs of sympathy from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, plan to push for an exemption to last year’s minimum wage increase that would allow them to pay a lower base wage to tipped employees.

“This last year has been a test for us,” said Ed Fong, owner of David Fong’s, a Bloomington Chinese restaurant his parents opened in 1958. “With the minimum wage increase, and big increases in food costs — those are my two biggest costs, and I seem to have less and less control of those items.”

When the Legislature boosted the state minimum wage last year, a proposal to add the so-called “tipped employee tier” nearly became part of the package. The idea had bipartisan support, but failed by one vote in the DFL-controlled House. Then Dayton, who strongly backed the minimum wage law, said shortly after signing it that he saw the logic behind an exemption for restaurants.

“I’m willing to discuss anything, but I’m not looking to change the minimum wage,” Dayton said in a recent interview with the Star Tribune. “I’m not going to open that door. If someone else wants to knock on it, they can put the proposal through the mail slot.”

Last year’s minimum wage hike was a huge victory for organized labor. The groups that pushed it are on high alert for proposals that would undermine it.

“It something we’re obviously keeping a very close eye on,” said Chris Shields, spokesman for the Minnesota AFL-CIO. “Given all we hear about stagnant wages, and that wages need to go up — we shouldn’t be focused on capping them or cutting them, which is what a tip penalty would do.”

Under the increase that Dayton signed last year, Minnesota’s minimum wage rose to $8 an hour last August. This August it will rise to $9 an hour, and to $9.50 by 2016. Beginning in 2018, the wage will rise in yearly increments with inflation.

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