Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / News / State’s highest court hears challenge to ballot question on tipped workers

State’s highest court hears challenge to ballot question on tipped workers

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is considering a challenge to a proposed ballot question that would increase wages for tipped workers and allow businesses to implement tip pooling among all employees.

The measure, if passed, would have a direct impact on the restaurant industry, with potential implications for other service workers or even ride-hailing services.

The ballot question aims to gradually raise the minimum wage for tipped workers until it matches the general statewide minimum wage by 2029. Additionally, it would allow employers to create tip pools, redistributing a portion of gratuities earned by tipped workers to other employees who do not typically receive tips, such as cooks and dishwashers.

Opponents argue that increasing wages for tipped workers and allowing tip pooling are two separate issues that should not be combined into a single ballot question. However, the Attorney General’s Office maintains that the two provisions are closely connected, as they both relate to how workers in tipped industries are compensated.

Massachusetts state law sets the standard minimum wage at $15 per hour. Businesses can pay certain employees who earn tips as little as $6.75 per hour, as long as the combination of wages and gratuities equals at least $15 hourly. If not, an employer must make up the difference.

Ballot question supporters want to eliminate that two-tiered system and instead require businesses to pay tipped workers a full $15, plus allow them to retain gratuities on top of that pay. The measure creates an option — not a requirement — for employers to pool and redistribute tips if they are paying all workers the statewide minimum wage.

A question of dependency

Under the state constitution, ballot questions must feature only mutually dependent topics to go before voters, and Attorney General Andrea J. Campbell last year deemed the tipped wages proposal ballot was eligible.

The plaintiffs, however, including the head of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, argue that boosting wages for tipped workers and allowing some tips to flow to other kinds of employees are too different to fulfill constitutional relatedness requirements for ballot questions.

At oral arguments before the state’s highest court, Ed Daley, an attorney for the challengers, said a waiter might love the portion of the ballot question that would increase what a restaurant needs to pay them but dislike the idea of sharing tips with back-of-house colleagues, or an owner might be worried about facing higher wage costs but feel better about pooling tips.

“The reason that those different voters could look so differently at these different issues is because they are separate questions with separate purposes, and that’s exactly what the relatedness requirement seeks to prevent the voters from having to choose,” Daley said. “They have one vote, but they’re being asked to vote on two separate things.”

Justice Scott L. Kafker told Daley he thinks plaintiffs are “really swimming upstream here.”

“[The topics] are really substantively interrelated,” Kafker said in oral arguments earlier this month. “I understand you can tease them apart to a certain extent. You’ve got a restaurant operating, and the people dealing with the public are getting paid tips, and the people doing the dishes are not. [But] the success of the restaurant is interdependent.”

The ballot measure will go in front of voters in November, if it survives the challenge. The national One Fair Wage group, which represents nearly 300,000 restaurant and service workers, is pursuing the measure, as well as similar ballot questions in Michigan, Ohio, and Arizona.