Minimum wage debate resurfaces in the Nebraska with new tweaks proposed in Legislature

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — Megan Hensley earned $2.13 an hour plus tips when she started waiting tables in Lincoln 14 years ago.

She enjoyed the work so much that she turned it into a career, serving patrons at high-end restaurants from Florida to California. When she returned to Lincoln four years ago and found another restaurant job, Hensley was surprised to discover that Nebraska's minimum wage for tipped employees hasn't budged.

"Living here is so cheap, but it was definitely a shocker that nothing had changed," said Hensley, now 33. Serving "is not an easy job. People need to remember there's a person behind that apron and that notepad."

Despite resounding voter support last year to increase the minimum wage, Nebraska lawmakers could find themselves debating the issue yet again. The Legislature's Business and Labor Committee on Monday will review two new minimum wage bills.

One would increase the base wage that employers have to pay workers who are largely compensated through tips. The other would let employers pay the state's old $7.25-an-hour wage to high school students in entry-level jobs.

The debate follows last year's campaign victory for the statewide ballot measure, which boosted Nebraska's minimum wage from $7.25 to $8 this year. The wage will increase again to $9 in 2016.

Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, a spokesman for last year's Nebraskans for Better Wages campaign, said the election shows clear public support for such measures, which lawmakers should heed.

"They can't dispute the fact that nearly 60 percent of Nebraskans voted to raise the minimum wage," said Nordquist. "I think that certainly translates to this issue as well."

Nordquist introduced legislation that would increase Nebraska's minimum wage for tipped workers from $2.13 an hour — the same as the federal minimum — to $3 in the first year. By 2017, the tipped wage would increase to half of the regular minimum wage, or $4.50 an hour.

Federal law requires businesses to pay the tipped minimum wage to employees who make at least $30 a month in tips. Nordquist said inflation has eroded the buying power of the tipped minimum wage since it was last increased in 1992.

Nebraska had 15,220 waiters in restaurants in 2013, with a median hourly wage of $8.59 an hour including tips, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide, 32 states have adopted tipped minimum wages higher than Nebraska's, including neighbors Colorado, Missouri and Iowa.

A lobbyist for Nebraska restaurants plans to fight the bill. The new minimum wage and mandates of the federal health care law have already placed a strain on many local establishments, said Jim Partington, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association. Raising the wage for tipped employees would add to the burden and could lead to higher menu prices, he said.

The student-wage bill by Sen. Laura Ebke would restore the old $7.25-an-hour minimum wage for high school students who are younger than 19. Employers could only pay the old rate for 25 percent of the hours worked. Students who graduate or drop out of high school would have to receive the state's full minimum wage.

Ebke, of Crete, said the bill is intended to help restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses that might have to cut expenses or raise prices due to the increased minimum wage.

"For kids of a certain age, it doesn't make a lot of sense," Ebke said. "They really don't need to have a higher minimum wage because it's not a living wage. What they need is the opportunity to learn how to work, to show up for a job on time. It's about the learning experience."

Ebke, who managed a Burger King when she was younger, said paying a $9 minimum wage to inexperienced workers would have forced the restaurant to slow its hiring. She disputed the notion that the bill runs afoul of what Nebraska voters wanted.

"I think a lot of people who vote for a measure like that are thinking about a living wage," she said. "They're thinking about people who have to pay for goods and services for their kids. Sometimes rules and regulations are a good thing. But (people) don't always stop and think that sometimes you're dealing with kids."

Nordquist opposes the bill, saying it creates an incentive for low-income students to drop out of school to help support their families. It also gives businesses a reason to hire high school students instead of working-age adults who may be trying to support themselves, he said.

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The tipped minimum wage bill is LB494. The student worker minimum wage bill is LB599.

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