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Maryland tipped workers call for wage increases amid Restaurant Week

During Baltimore City’s Winter Restaurant Week, from Fells Point to Hampden, eateries across Baltimore City showcase their menus. The promotion offers patrons discounted prices across more than 80 restaurants over a 10 day span.

While some use Restaurant Week to explore delicacies, both customers and workers alike are concerned this year about their wallets and bank accounts respectively. Record inflation has some diners like Mariah Danyale looking more closely at menu prices.

“I just moved here in November from Ohio, so I am on a budget,” said Danyale. “I wanted to make sure, like, I could still go out and have a good time but not completely break the bank.”

Customers aren’t the only ones concerned about their finances.

Tracy Lingo, staff director with Unite Here Local 7, a union that represents food service workers statewide said that while the Restaurant Week promotes a vibrant city life experience, there is one thing she wants customers to consider.

“Workers really depend on the tips they get for a large part of their income,” said Lingo. “When there's a discounted price, people just tip on the price they pay, instead of on the retail price.”

In Maryland, some workers in the service industry earn a base pay of $3.63 per hour. While the state’s minimum wage is $13.25 as of January, in theory, all tipped workers should be earning at least the minimum because tips are supposed to make up the difference.

Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, an advocacy organization in Washington D.C. that seeks to change laws to protect service industry workers, said that employers should increase wages so that tips are a bonus, instead of a subsidy.

Jayaraman has been working with various state lawmakers on legislation that would increase pay for tipped workers earning less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

“It is imperative that even though it's a short session, we pass this law to end the sub minimum wage for tipped workers,” she said.

Some employers have elected to raise pay, but more action is needed to attract and retain workers, Jayaraman argued. Her organization published a report highlighting Maryland restaurants that are already paying higher than minimum wages.

“Individual restaurants raising wages doesn't provide a guarantee to workers,” she said. “We need policy that will set a level playing field.”

On a national level, there is also a push to improve the working conditions of tipped workers. Service industry organizations are calling on the public to support a Bill of Rights for restaurant workers. It is currently a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As for what these changes would mean for the future of Baltimore’s Restaurant Week, a spokesperson for the Downtown Partnership says adjustments will be made.

“Restaurant Week has been around since 2006. And there has been shifts throughout those nearly 20 years. And we will take in to account any shifts that come,” said Susan Brown, Director of Events & Promotions of the Baltimore Downtown Partnership.

For restaurant owners themselves, it’s business as usual.

Chef Valentino Sandoval, owner of Bmore Taqueria is a newcomer to Baltimore City’s Restaurant Week. Sandoval said the event put on by the Downtown Partnership is bringing in new customers.

“People they live two to three blocks, they don't even notice that we're here,” Sandoval said. “We're already here, two years, three years.”

The new faces are becoming repeat customers, he said.

Sandoval declined to share specific worker wage information for Bmore Taqueria.

He expects to keep serving savory dishes through Sunday, the final day of Restaurant Week.

“We start everything mostly from the scratch,” he said. “I use ribeye for my tacos. I use lobster. I make my own tortillas. I make my own ceviche, my own chorizo. And everything here.”

Wambui Kamau is a General Assignment Reporter for WYPR. @WkThee
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