Campaigning on a myth

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Start with the campaign for paid sick leave, whose members have invested considerable resources in states and cities across the country to convince voters and legislators that dining out is a hazard to their health. Their solution to this supposed problem? Require all employers to provide paid sick leave, so that (in their telling) no one has to choose between their job and their health.
 
There’s an easy way to test whether the rhetoric matches reality: Are there fewer sick people in the workplace after a sick day law is passed? Unfortunately for advocates, their own research is their undoing. In a survey of San Francisco employers conducted after that city passed a sick day law, 80 percent of respondents reported no change in the number of employees coming to work sick—and just three percent noted an improvement.  
 
In other words, the data suggests that employers were already taking steps to keep sick employees out of the workplace, like providing sick time or schedule flexibility if they can’t afford a paid policy. This is consistent with a recent EPI survey of employers in Connecticut, a state that last year became the first to require employers to provide paid sick leave. Nearly 90 percent of respondents said that sickness in the workplace was not a serious problem prior to the law taking affect. Additionally, there’s evidence in both Connecticut and San Francisco to suggest that some employers adjusted to the cost of the mandate by cutting hours or scaling back on other employee benefits.
 
Of course, facts like these don’t make for a compelling campaign narrative.
 
The other falsehood that radical advocacy groups would have you believe is that “restaurant workers make as little as $2.13 an hour,” a message they’ll be spreading to any legislator who will listen at their rally today.
 
This could not be further from the truth. The minimum wage for restaurant employees is the same as it is for any other employee — $7.25 an hour. In full-service restaurants, employers pay the federally-required base wage and guarantee that (with tips included) the employee makes at least the federal minimum.
 
There’s also the fact that the average wage for a tipped restaurant employee is nearly $12 an hour, and that top earners make $24 an hour or more. Even the IRS considers tips to be income earned on the job. So much for $2.13.
 
But the $2.13 myth persists, due in large part to the efforts of ROC and its allies. They’re supporting legislation to hike the base tipped wage by roughly 220 percent, a devastating increase in an industry where profit margins are in the low single-digits. New research based on work from economists at Miami and Trinity University suggests that a wage increase of this magnitude would mean 316,000 fewer full-time equivalent jobs in the full-service restaurant industry as well as less service for consumers.
 
These facts won’t stop the march forward on wage and benefit mandates. Activists have never had a  particularly healthy view of the consequences of their proposed mandates. But that doesn’t mean that legislators — both in Congress and in the states — have to come down with the same economic illness.
 
Saltsman is research director at the Employment Policies Institute.