HELENA - Rachel Conn, 27, is a waitress in Helena. She makes $1,100 a month and has $900 in monthly expenses. That leaves her $200 spending money a month, although "spending" in this case, Conn said, also includes inevitable repair bills for her old car and paying all of her medical costs out-of-pocket.
The 2009 Legislature is taking up a bill Wednesday that would freeze Montana's $6.90 minimum wage for waiters and waitresses like Conn. Any raise she would receive after $6.90 would come out of her tips.
And that, Conn said, is just wrong.
"If you think that people who make minimum wage live in this crazy black hole where (the cost) of everything never changes, I can tell you that's dead wrong," she said Tuesday.
Conn plans on telling her story to the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee on Wednesday morning. Lawmakers there are taking the first crack at two bills that would freeze Montana's minimum wage. Both are sponsored by Republican Sen. Don Steinbeisser, a rancher and sugar beet farmer from Sidney.
His Senate Bill 253 would freeze minimum wage at $6.90 for tipped employees. If the minimum wage increases above $6.90, the employer could make up the difference in the tipped person's gratuities.
The change would mean that tipped employees would receive less than minimum wage from their employer, provided tips make up the difference. If the employee does not earn enough in tips to meet the new minimum wage, the employer would have to make up the difference.
The committee will also take up Steinbeisser's companion bill, Senate Bill 254, which removes automatic cost-of-living increases to Montana's minimum wage.
Montana's minimum wage is pegged to the national consumer price index, which measures the cost of goods and services. The wage automatically goes up or down each year depending on the cost of living.
That mechanism was put into place after more than 70 percent of Montana voters voted for Initiative 151 in 2006, which increased the minimum wage and called for automatic adjustments.
Steinbeisser said Tuesday he's got nothing against the minimum wage or waiters and waitresses. But as a senator from a small town, he's heard from restaurant owners, and even some employees, who say routine raises to the minimum wage, coupled with the recession, has some businesses contemplating closing their doors.
A job with a little less in pay, he said, beats no job at all.
Plus, he said, some waiters and waitresses do very well. Steinbeisser said he knew of one woman who quit her job at a bank because she could make more as a bartender.
Both bills are supported by the Montana Restaurant Association, which asked Steinbeisser to sponsor them.
Brad Griffin, the executive director of the group, said wait staff are usually the best paid people in a restaurant, largely because they receive tips. State and federal increases to the minimum wage have resulted in raise after raise for minimum wage employees.
"It's been too much, too fast," Griffin said and restaurant owners can't absorb the quick uptake in the minimum wage, especially not with the recession, which has fewer people eating out.
The "tip credit" bill, he said, gives restaurant owners some benefit for all they do to create a work environment that leads to bigger tips, things like having a diverse menu, keeping up a nice restaurant and generally providing a quality din-ing experience.
"We don't begrudge servers from making the money they're making," he said. But wait staff are typically the "best paid in the house" and why should they get the same required raises as everyone else when they're already making more?
Both bills, Griffin said, were also about survival for some businesses who simply cannot afford the double-hit of in-creased labor costs and a drop in business.
Conn, who spoke highly of her boss and said she had no quarrel with her employer, said it's a common misconception that the wait staff keep all their tips. She said she disburses about 40 percent of her tips to the chefs and bus people who also make the restaurant function. That's a fairly high percentage, she said, but it's not uncommon for the wait staff to part with 15 to 30 percent of their tips.
Conn, who also works as a chef, said she understands the hard times business owners are facing. But going after the lowest paid segment of the work force seems wrong, she said.
The less money people have to spend, the less frequently they'll eat out. That includes wait staff.
"We keep letting people drop off this cliff," she said. "It's a step backward."
Layna George, executive director of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation or WEEL, a Helena-based low-income advocacy group, said minimum wage is still not a living wage and freezing it will only exacerbate the problem.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer also opposes the bills.