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Restaurant Workers Win Minimum Wage Battle

July 20, 2007

For Immediate Release
July 20, 2007

Mike Webb, Brennan Center for Justice, 212–998–6746
Raj Nayak, Brennan Center for Justice, 312–399–9904
Lara Granich, St. Louis Area Jobs with Justice,

Restaurant Workers Win Minimum Wage Battle
Missouri Restaurants Drop Challenge to
Tipped Workers’ Wages

Jefferson City, Missouri – Missouri workers won what may be the last round in their fight for a minimum wage increase as the restaurant industry dropped a court challenge seeking to exempt more than 54,000 tipped employees from the state minimum wage.  As a result, tipped workers are now entitled to receive base wages of $3.25 per hour for all hours worked since January 1, 2007, when Missouri’s minimum wage increase took effect.

In late May, a Missouri state court dismissed a restaurant industry-backed lawsuit that was the latest in a series of attempts to block the minimum wage increase approved by 76% of Missouri’s voters last fall. The restaurants did not appeal that ruling, leaving the court’s decision – and the higher minimum wage – in place. 

But St. Louis Area Jobs with Justice still receives reports from servers throughout the state who have not been paid the full minimum wage dating back to January 1.  Restaurants that fail to pay their tipped employees at least $3.25 for each hour they worked this year risk being assessed penalties including back wages, liquidated damages, court costs, and attorneys fees.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law filed a brief explaining why the court should reject the restaurant industry’s lawsuit. “Missouri restaurants have run out of excuses,” said Raj Nayak, an attorney with the Brennan Center’s Economic Justice Project. “Any holdouts that do not give their workers the raise that they were due on January 1 will be breaking the law.”

Last year, Missourians overwhelmingly passed a wage increase through a ballot initiative supported by St. Louis Area Jobs with Justice, the Brennan Center, and other groups. Missouri’s minimum wage has long required that tipped workers receive a base wage of at least 50% of the minimum wage, with the balance provided in the form of tips.  Nothing in the ballot initiative changed that requirement.

The restaurant industry initially persuaded Missouri’s labor department to do an end run around the voter-approved raise by incorrectly telling employers that employees can be forced to work just for tips. The agency’s erroneous advice sparked a state-wide campaign, led by St. Louis Area Jobs with Justice and Give Missourians a Raise, to organize thousands of restaurant workers to protest the attempted wage roll-back. In March, Governor Matt Blunt rejected the agency’s interpretation after an analysis by the Brennan Center and six local law professors confirmed that it had no legal basis. The restaurant industry then sued the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, asking the court to endorse the interpretation that the state had rejected.

“Any restaurants that continue to violate the law are shameless,” said Lara Granich, director of St. Louis Area Jobs with Justice. “Their claims have been rejected by the voters, the governor, and the courts.”

The Brennan Center joined with St. Louis attorneys Arthur Martin and Christopher Grant from Schuchat, Cook & Werner, Professor John Ammann from the St. Louis University School of Law, and Denise Lieberman from the Stetin Center for Law and Social Change to file two amicus briefs defending Missouri’s wage law and urging the court to dismiss the restaurants’ claims.

In its ruling in May, the Cole County, Missouri circuit court agreed with the Brennan Center’s analysis and dismissed the restaurants’ lawsuit in the case, G.R. Restaurant, Inc. and J.J. Group, Inc. v. Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, Cause Number 07AC-CC00276. The restaurants’ deadline for appeal passed on July 3, 2007.