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National Restaurant Association - Restaurant advocates take to Capitol Hill

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Restaurant advocates take to Capitol Hill

Health care, wages and opportunities topped the list of issues for restaurateurs who met with members of Congress during the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 Public Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C.

The theme of the conference was Stand Up for Restaurants, and the more than 700 restaurateurs at the event were encouraged to share stories of the opportunities they create and how federal laws affect their businesses. Restaurant operators  said they’re feeling squeezed by a combination of factors, including the costs and regulatory burdens of the health care law, talk of a federal minimum wage increase, tax uncertainty, and mandatory wage increases imposed by states.

“I think the focus has really been on the way the government has targeted our industry,” said Danny Sumrall, owner of The Half Shell restaurants in Memphis, Tenn. and chairman of the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association. “We provide opportunities to young kids, working parents, returning veterans. We want to provide the American Dream. Unfortunately, the American Dream is being cut off at the knees.”

It was by coincidence that a bill to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 and the minimum cash wage for tipped employees from $2.13 to $7.07 over three years failed to proceed to debate in the Senate on the day restaurateurs were working to clear up misconceptions about the earnings of tipped employees.

“I think if there’s even a glimmer of hope to educate and influence legislators, it’s worth coming to Washington,” said Craig Kunisch, owner of the Mahwah Bar & Grill in Mahwah, N.J. “One of our biggest concerns was the misunderstanding of the tipped wage.” Supporters of a minimum wage increase often point to the $2.13 federal minimum cash wage for tipped employees and suggest that tipped employees earn only $2.13 an hour, operators said. But operators must make up the difference if employees’ tips don’t equal the minimum wage, and according to NRA research, on a national level tipped employees earn a median of $16 to $22 per hour.

“My waitstaff averages $20 to $25 an hour,” said Debbi McSwain, owner of The String Bean Restaurant in Richardson, Texas. “They make more than anybody else in the restaurant.”

Securing changes to the 2010 health care law has been a dominant issue for restaurant advocates since the law passed, and it was a hot topic of discussion during the Capitol Hill visits.

“The next hurdle is the Senate with the 40-hour bill,” said David McMillan, owner of Drunken Jack’s Restaurant in Murrells Inlet, S.C., during a visit with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). “[Scott] has a business background, so he gets it.” A bill to change the health care law’s definition of “full-time” from 30 to 40 hours passed the House in March, and has been proposed in the Senate.

Immigration reform also remains an important issue for the restaurant industry. The Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill in 2013, but efforts to have the House take up reform measures have stalled. McSwain said she’s seen the impact of the current laws on her staff and gave the example of her kitchen manager, who spent $17,000 over seven years to gain full legal status.

Restaurateurs who participated in the congressional visits called the day a success.

“They seemed receptive to our ideas, and hopefully, that will open opportunities for all of us,” said Joe Gibson, McSwain’s husband and co-owner of The String Bean.

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