By Sarah Mearhoff/VTDigger
Before she became one of Vermont’s youngest serving state legislators, Rep. Becca White, D-Hartford, worked for a short period as a restaurant server.
Like countless servers in Vermont, White’s hourly wage was lower than that of Vermont’s standard minimum wage. Currently, Vermont’s tipped minimum wage, $6.28 per hour, is half that of the standard minimum wage, $12.55 per hour. (Both are set to increase slightly on Jan. 1, to $6.59 and $13.18 per hour, respectively.) For tipped workers, tips from customers are meant to make up the difference for their hourly take-home pay.
White, who was elected to the state Senate this fall, is leading a bill this coming legislative session that would bring Vermont’s hourly minimum wage for tipped workers in line with the state’s standard minimum wage. She said her work on the bill is motivated in large part by her own experience in the industry, but also because “a lot of the people in my life are in service industry jobs.”
“And when you hear enough stories about the difficulty of being in a job that relies on tips, it just becomes obvious that the system is broken,” White said.
During her brief stint as a server, White said she had her personality working in her favor: “I’m a bubbly, upbeat person. I like to know people’s names. I’m chatty. That’s a benefit to me and was definitely a way to have a greater tip at the end of the evening.”
But there’s also a lot more that can factor into a final tip than how well a server performs their job, White said. Maybe the kitchen makes a mistake.
Unlike workers who make a standard wage, those factors — sometimes out of a server’s control — can make the difference between a healthy income for the week, or one that doesn’t make ends meet. For White, the stress of the income variability was too much.
“What I found was that I couldn’t work in that position very long because of the stress, even though I’m outwardly a person who was doing well tip-wise. But the stress was something that I struggled with,” she said.
According to One Fair Wage, a national organization lobbying to raise tipped wages, seven states have raised their tipped wages to match the standard minimum wage. Currently, the national tipped minimum wage is $2.13 per hour.
Nader Hashim, a former Democratic state representative who will return to the Statehouse in January to represent Windham County in the state Senate, is also an early supporter of the bill. He, too, worked as a server when he was a teenager.
“Experiencing what servers and waitstaff deal with — it was definitely an eye opener,” he said. “You really have to put up with a lot more verbal abuse while your means of survival is hanging in the balance,” Hashim added.
Hashim, White and Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, who is supporting the bill in the House, all said that the potential for harassment from customers is particularly acute for women, who make up the majority of food service workers nationwide. White said that it’s “a clear trend” that workers feel obligated to brush off inappropriate interactions or even act “over-submissive” when they’re dependent on a customer’s tip to pay the bills.
“You have to decide in that moment between financial security, or standing up for your dignity and your ability to work in a safe environment,” White said. “And there’s work that an employer can do to prevent that, but just the power imbalance of that situation — I think it’s rife for sexual harassment to continue to happen.”
A report compiled by One Fair Wage and University of California Berkeley Food Labor Research Center found that 71% of women surveyed who worked in restaurants reported being sexually harassed at least once during their time in the industry.
All three legislators are also motivated by Vermont’s still-looming employment crisis. Workplaces, particularly restaurants, are struggling to recruit and retain staff, even years after they shuttered temporarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They argue that higher wages will attract steadier employees.
White said she hasn’t heard opposition to the bill yet, but she anticipates she will. She said she’s empathetic to the struggles and increased costs small businesses are already facing, but in the long run, believes restaurants would benefit from more reliable staffing and decreased turnover.
“If you want to maintain a workforce, you’ve got to change with the times, or people are going to continue to leave,” White said.
At the end of the day, Bos-Lun said she views the issue as one of economic justice. “I want people to have a reliable income whoever they are in Vermont,” she said. “And this sub-minimum wage is a category that’s kind of slipped through the cracks, really, for over a century.”