Turmoil in Restaurant Industry Leads to Protest, Controversial New Bill

By Miranda Ericksen

Not only has the restaurant industry weathered changes due to staffing shortages, supply chain challenges and evolving regulations during COVID, it is now faced with additional issues around workers’ wages, and saw a controversial bill recently fail in the Colorado Legislature.

One Fair Wage, a national organization seeking to end all subminimum wages in the United States, organized a protest outside the Colorado Restaurant Association’s (CRA) headquarters on Valentine’s Day.

According to the One Fair Wage website, “One Fair Wage works to advance policy, drive industry change, and shift the narrative in order to ensure that all workers in America are paid at least the full minimum wage from their employers.”

The protest was conducted nationally at various National Restaurant Association headquarters, an organization with which the CRA is not affiliated.

As of Jan. 1, Denver increased the minimum wage to $17.29 per hour, or $14.27 plus an option for a $3.02 tip for food and beverage industry. In contrast, the Colorado tipped minimum wage is $10.63 per hour.

The small group of protesters was present recently at CRA, expressing opposition to appropriation of revenue from CRA’s required ServSafe safety training courses, saying that the association used the revenue from the training courses toward lobbying efforts to suppress workers’ wage rights.

ServSafe safety training courses cover basic food safety concepts and prevention of food-borne illness. They are a legal requirement for managers of restaurants in Colorado, but not for all food handlers. The courses range from $140 for CRA members to $180 for non-member establishments.

Since the change in minimum wage for Denver began, the CRA turned its attention toward advocacy against HB23-1118 Fair Workweek Employment Standards, which failed to get out of committee recently.

“I’m disappointed that the Fair Workweek Act fell short this year, even though sponsors and the coalition tried to find compromises with the opposition,” Rep. Emily Sirota, a bill sponsor, said in a press release. “It looks like well-heeled, industry lobbyists won this year, leaving low-wage workers at the mercy of unpredictable schedules that put their health at risk, interfere with their family responsibilities and jeopardize their economic stability.”

HB23-1118 would have required employees to submit schedule-change requests 14 days in advance and impose financial penalties on employers for any schedule changes once posted.

According to the Colorado Secretary of State website, CRA has paid $14,000 since last July, $2,000 a month, to lobbyist Nick Hoover specifically to address the Fair Workweek Employment Standards bill, but whether that money came from its ServSafe account could not be verified.

According to CRA’s interpretation, the bill included penalties for reducing or increasing shift hours, “retention pay” for employers who are providing shifts to new employees in place of existing employees, and additional compensation if an employee has a 15% variation from their agreed-upon work plan.

In a press release from the CRA, it indicated the association was “opposed to and extremely concerned about (the bill)” and that the bill showed “a dire misunderstanding of the way the restaurant industry operates and disregarded a fundamental pillar of restaurant employment: flexibility.”

In a survey of over 200 restaurant operators, CRA stated the average estimated cost for compliance with this bill would be $70,000 per year per location.

“The time it would take to update schedules, create and update work plans, create and approve schedule changes, and comply with the proposed three-year retention policy” are all factored into the $70,000 annual estimate, according to Denise Mickelsen, CRA communications director.

This bill would have not only limited future expansion opportunities, it would have also caused menu price increases for 97% of restaurant operators surveyed, she said. Additionally, 98% of operators indicated they would have likely scheduled fewer staff members to avoid penalties, which presented the potential for burnout in an industry that is already overburdened with lack of adequate staffing.

Colin Larson, director of government affairs for CRA, said the bill would have caused “adversarial communication with restaurant owners and their employees and was not designed with the industry in mind.”

He said although predictability with scheduling is a nice idea, the reality of the industry is that shift changes, swapping employees and the need for flexibility on both sides are an almost daily occurrence with restaurants.


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