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Minimum wage push spices up restaurant aid debate

'If you pay them, they will come,' Rep. Jan Schakowsky said

Doug Farkas serves a Senate Beer by Right Proper Brewing at Boundary Stone in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington on the first night of the pub’s reopening April 15, 2021.
Doug Farkas serves a Senate Beer by Right Proper Brewing at Boundary Stone in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington on the first night of the pub’s reopening April 15, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A fight over wages for restaurant workers is posing a new threat to a bipartisan effort to funnel additional federal aid to the pandemic-battered restaurant industry.

Flanked by restaurant workers outside the Capitol, a group of House Democrats on Tuesday called for tying any additional aid to raising the federal subminimum wage of $2.13 an hour that applies to workers who rely mostly on tips.

“Even as we want to save the restaurant industry, the way to save it is to raise the wages of the workers,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

Citing the hardship restaurant owners face in staffing their businesses during the pandemic, Schakowksy said, “If you pay them, they will come.” She called the subminimum wage a “shameful relic of slavery” that should be abolished.

An estimated 1 million workers have left the restaurant industry since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, and higher wages will be required to bring them back, said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, a coalition of 270,000 restaurant and service workers that hosted the news conference. “If there is going to be more relief, there must be wage increases for workers tied to that relief,” she said.

But the wage battle could trip up lawmakers working to build bipartisan support for another round of pandemic aid. Within minutes of the outdoor news conference, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., held a Zoom call to tout support for his bill that would pump an additional $60 billion into restaurants.

Blumenauer told reporters he would not favor amending his legislation to include higher wages.

“I don’t want to complicate the package we have that has this broad, bipartisan support,” he said. Calling the wage effort “a distraction,” Blumenauer said much of the federal grant money is used to help pay for workers.

“Making an additional complication that isn’t directly related to the legislation I think would not be helpful and not necessary,” he said. His bill now has 327 bipartisan co-sponsors, or “more than a majority,” he said.

The restaurant industry has been clamoring for more federal aid since burning through $28.6 billion Congress provided as part of a pandemic relief package last year. Only about a third of the restaurants that applied for aid last year received a grant under the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, leaving nearly 200,000 restaurants and bars struggling to stay afloat without assistance.

More than 90,000 restaurants and bars nationwide have closed since the beginning of the pandemic, and more than 86 percent of owners say they may close if they don’t receive a grant, according to a recent survey from the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

Lawmakers of both parties introduced various bills last year offering up to $120 billion for restaurant aid, but none gained enough traction to win a floor vote in either chamber.

A bipartisan Senate group led by Small Business Chair Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., is drafting a revised bill that he said would provide about $40 billion in new restaurant funding, along with billions more for other struggling industries. He has not disclosed details.

A push for restaurant relief could become part of an overdue omnibus spending package for the current fiscal year if momentum for separate legislation falters.

“We want to make sure it gets in the next vehicle,” Blumenauer said. “Whatever is moving.”  

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