The Santa Fe County Commission made headlines in February, when it passed a Living Wage Ordinance that increased the minimum pay in unincorporated areas from $7.50 per hour to $10.66 — equal to the city’s minimum — and increased the base wage for tipped employees to $6.40.
At the time, the measure’s sponsors, Commissioners Miguel Chavez and Liz Stefanics, said the legislation didn’t do enough but was a move in the right direction.
“It should be much higher,” Stefanics said.
Chavez agreed. “It really is a non-living wage,” he said, “but it puts money in the pockets of people who need it most.”
But tipped employees have yet to see an increase in pay, and when they finally do, come Jan. 1, 2015, their wage hike will be much smaller.
On May 27, the commission amended the Living Wage Ordinance, reducing base pay for tipped workers to $3.20 per hour and delaying implementation of that increase until 2015. In the meantime, since the amendments had been proposed before the ordinance took effect April 27, county officials say, the increase for those workers was suspended until the commission took a vote.
Wage laws allow tipped employees to be paid a base wage that’s less than the federal minimum but require an employer to make up the difference if a worker’s base wage and tips combined don’t reach the minimum pay.
Two county commissioners who had voted to approve the original wage ordinance introduced the amendments.
Commissioner Robert Anaya proposed doing away entirely with the increase for tipped employees. This would have left tipped workers’ base pay at $2.13 per hour — the federal minimum since 1991, when it was increased by 4 cents.
Commissioner Miguel Chavez proposed a compromise bill — adopted by a vote of 4-1 — that set the wage at $3.20 and delayed it until Jan. 1.
Chavez said Thursday he proposed the amendment “because I understand that this is also going to be an impact to those that employ people.” Delaying the increase would give employers more time to adjust, he added.
Commissioners Anaya, Stefanics and Kathy Holian did not return calls seeking comment.
During a discussion about proposed changes to the ordinance May 13, Anaya said he “had dialogue with people on both sides” and felt the changes would “make sure that the ordinance is effective and useful” and wouldn’t discourage people from operating businesses in the county.
Feedback from area restaurant owners may have played a role in his decision. Harry’s Roadhouse owner Harry Shapiro told The New Mexican on Tuesday that he was “shocked” when he heard about the increase for tipped employees.
“The waiters are the best-paid hourly employees in the restaurant,” Shapiro said. “So you are taking someone that is making that much money” — he estimated his staffers earn $20 to $40 per hour — “and giving them a 300 percent wage increase, and you’re not addressing the dishwashers or cooks or anyone who typically gets a lot less than the waiters.”
He explained this to members of the County Commission, who then proposed the amendments, Shapiro said.
Along with Shapiro, about half a dozen restaurateurs — including the owners of Joe’s Dining, Steaksmith at El Gancho and Cafe Fina — spoke during two public hearings held before a vote on the wage ordinance amendments. All but one of them opposed the increase for tipped employees.
“You’re singling out a group of people that already makes more than the minimum wage, and you give them more money,” said Roland Richter, owner and chef at Joe’s Dining. Richter’s business is in the city, but he said he felt the county issue was important, so he wanted to weigh in.
Laurie Lindsey, owner the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, was the sole voice of support for the compromise ordinance that the commission passed.
It seems tipped employees should have earned the higher rate of $6.40 per hour for the month between April 27, when the Living Wage Ordinance took effect, and May 27, when the commission voted to reduce and delay the increase.
But they didn’t.
On April 24, County Manager Katherine Miller sent a letter to business owners, saying the base wage increase for tipped employees was “suspended” until May 27 “or later,” when the commission had a chance to address the proposed amendments.
Miller was out sick this week, according to county spokeswoman Kristine Mihelcic, and could not comment for this story.
Jared Ames, state director of the labor advocacy group Working America, took issue with the suspension of that section of the ordinance in a written statement Thursday.
“We’re disturbed that the [county] denied tipped workers a month’s worth of higher wages without any clear rationale,” he said. “If they had been paid that wage — as they should have been under the law — it would have been much more difficult for the county commissioners to take the wage away.”
Ames’ group had gathered signatures to get the commission to consider the original Living Wage Ordinance.
In his statement, Ames said, “Tipped workers deserve a living wage just as much as other workers especially since they are more than twice as likely to fall under the federal poverty.”
Danny Mayfield — the only commissioner who voted against reducing and delaying the increase for tipped employees — also questioned the suspension of the ordinance.
He asked Miller on May 13 how the county could put an ordinance on hold, without a public vote, after it has passed.
Miller said the notice had been sent on the advice of then county attorney Steve Ross.
Mayfield raised the issue again May 27 with Gregory Shaffer, the new county attorney. But Shaffer declined to address the question publicly.
Asked what authority the county’s legal department had to delay all or part of an approved ordinance, Mihelcic replied in writing that “the decision to suspend the tipped-wage portion of the ordinance was based upon a variety of factors, including the burden caused to business if they were required to implement two different wages for tipped employees within a matter of weeks and the confusion likely to result from the giving of a temporary wage increase.”
She declined to speculate on how the county would handle a future ordinance that is scheduled to take effect after amendments have been proposed.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or email@example.com.