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editor's picktopical
Restaurants oppose wage raises for tipped workers

Samantha Downs has been a bartender more than 17 years, and she's proud of the career the service industry has provided.

She told a legislative committee Monday that contrary to what many opponents to raising the minimum wage for tipped workers say, restaurant workers are not mostly entry-level and low-skilled, but rather highly creative and skilled people. 

Downs, testifying on a bill (LB400) heard by the Business and Labor Committee, said it's not the case that tips supplement the subminimum wage well for restaurant workers.

As a front house manager, she clocks in at 6 a.m. and spends an hour setting up the restaurant with no patrons there to tip. 

"During my shift I am responsible for hosting, cashier, reception, all janitorial work, food prep and the daily needs of full service," she said. "After service, we spend two hours cleaning, breaking down the space and preparing for the next day's service." 

That's three hours of work out of 10 with no tipping customers, no breaks or meals, she said. 

Employees are required to pay one another out of earned and taxed tips, including support staff such as bussers, she said. It feels like double taxation, as all must claim tips for tax purposes, and wage theft, she said.  

"Employees are left with little or no protection while business practices are ineffectively regulated," she said. 

Other servers made the point that Nebraska pays more than federal minimum wage but not to restaurant workers.

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, who introduced the bill, told the committee the creation of the two-tiered wage system fundamentally changed the practice of tipping, shifting the responsibility of compensating servers from business owners to customers. 

"Today, that responsibility has continued to shift, moving from patrons and business owners to the taxpayers," Hunt said. 

Restaurant servers are three times more likely to live in poverty than the general work force, and two times more likely to be on food stamps or Medicaid, Hunt said. 

It's been 28 years since the state raised the subminimum wage — $2.13 an hour — for tipped workers, the same as under federal law. That figure hasn't changed since the lower rate was created by Congress.

Hunt's bill would raise pay to 40 percent of the Nebraska minimum wage of $9 after Jan. 1, 2020, and before Jan. 1, 2021, and 50 percent of the minimum wage rate for wages paid on or after Jan. 1, 2021.

Employers are required to make sure workers' tips plus base pay add up to the established minimum wage, but restaurant workers questioned owners' compliance with that.

Other states around Nebraska pay more to tipped workers, supporters said, and the state will continue to see workers leaving Nebraska to go to those states to work.

Opponents of the bill said many tipped workers are well-compensated. 

Jim Partington, representing the Nebraska Restaurant Association, the Nebraska Retail Federation and the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, said servers generally like tipping as part of their compensation because it allows them to earn more based on the quality of their service. 

Restaurant owners like it because it ensures excellent service and a good customer experience, he said. 

The average verifiable credit card tip for wait staff is 21 percent, he said. That represents about 90 percent of sales in a typical full-service restaurant. Wait staff average $12.67 per hour statewide, according to a report by the Nebraska Department of Labor.  

"LB400 would increase hourly pay for tipped employees by $2.37 an hour, resulting in a 10 to 15 percent hourly raise for some of the most highly compensated employees," he said. 

Tip income has kept pace with inflation, he said. 

The committee also heard a bill (LB383) introduced by Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island that would raise the general minimum wage beginning in 2020 and using the consumer price index. 

His bill would enshrine into law the importance of a living wage to all Nebraskans, he said. The wage would be adjusted each year to reflect the average annual percentage change to the consumer price index for the most recent five-year period. 

The index is already used to adjust Social Security payments and provide cost-of-living wage adjustments to retired workers. 

"I think it's the best way to keep up with the cost of living," Quick said.  

The minimum wage now of $9 per hour is still an inefficient wage, he said.  

Opponents said many businesses already operate on thin profit margins. Minimum wages represent entry-level pay, for the most part, for unskilled workers. Tying the wage to the consumer price index could make it difficult for businesses to keep up with yearly raises and could lead to layoffs, they said. 

Sasse challenges students to engage in meaningful ways — away from screens

Similar to the Industrial Revolution more than a century ago, a digital revolution has changed the way Americans live, work and play, Sen. Ben Sasse told 600-plus students, faculty and community members at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on Monday.

Technology has helped make Americans the richest people at any time in history and put the world at their fingertips, but it has also driven ongoing economic upheaval and led many to become disconnected from traditional community structures, Sasse said.

Kicking off UNL’s Charter Week celebration in a student-led conversation titled “Why Don’t We Get Along? How Huskers Can Change the Future,” Sasse said family, sense of location and long-term work framed the identities of Americans for generations.

“I think what’s happening now is people are hollowing out traditional tribes, tribes of place, and we’re trying to replace that with tribes of ideology,” he said, adding that the tribes Americans often pick — Republicans or Democrats — are not adequate replacements for communities.

“Right now, I think political tribes are rushing to fill a vacuum that’s created by the speed with which technology is undermining traditional tribes of rootedness,” he said at the NU Coliseum.

Sasse said UNL — and other universities across the country — will be called upon to lead the counter-revolution to the ongoing digital renaissance, preparing students for an ever-shifting economy, and teaching them to engage in meaningful ways away from screens.

Universities will need to think about instilling “grit and nimbleness” in students to prepare them for jobs that may not exist yet, as well as how to adapt quickly in a constantly changing world.

While Sasse suggested part of the solution included having students unplug — putting down their smartphones and closing their laptops — to have more face-to-face interactions around them in order to restore civil discourse, UNL student-panelists said the answer was more complex.

Growing technology use has exacerbated some rifts in American society, said senior political science major Hunter Traynor, but it has created opportunities for conversations to solve those problems elsewhere.

Traynor said Sasse’s argument for students to move away from technology in order to seek more conversations ignored their reality of growing up immersed in social media and other platforms that previous generations did not.

“It’s hard to think aspirationally when all the solutions are pitched in nostalgia,” said the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska president.

One experiment ASUN plans to roll out later this year, Traynor explained, is called “Converge Nebraska,” which will ask students to answer questions about issues and will pair them with someone with an opposing view.

“It will let them go off, find time to talk, and hash out their differences,” he said, with the goal of creating dialogues and more engagement on campus.

Grace Chambers, a junior sociology major, said UNL should build upon existing programs such as Husker Dialogues to foster more conversations on campus.

“I really think that at an institutional level, we have to practice what we preach and we have to actually be the place that we say we are as a university,” she said.

But, she added, technology and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter need to be used as tools to better educate and engage with a broad spectrum of students, rather than avoid using those methods at all.

Building on her point, Sasse said it’s important to think about “to what end” those tools are being used. In the past, the country’s brightest minds were tasked with how to keep gamblers in casinos, or how to get more people to use tobacco.

Now, those minds are trying to figure out how to keep people on their devices for as long as possible, he added.

Sasse said he’s not pitching an exclusive anti-technology argument. He said he appreciates how technology allows him to remain connected to friends and family regardless of geography, but he asked students to evaluate whether they were using it to supplement their relationships or substitute them.

Kamryn Sannicks, a junior political science major, said those meaningful relationships to build a community can begin with something as simple as greeting someone on campus.

See photos from Sen. Ben Sasse's visit to campus on Monday:

Sasse at NU

Workers plead for help for mandatory overtime at state prisons, Regional Center

Testimony Monday on a bill that would limit overtime in 24-hour facilities operated by the state, including prisons and the Lincoln Regional Center, to 12 hours per shift, showed the toll that overtime has taken on state workers. 

The bill (LB345), introduced by Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart, also would prohibit employees working more than seven straight days without a day off. 

Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes told the Legislature's Business and Labor Committee such a bill would throw the prisons into a state of chaos. 

"Eliminating mandatory overtime would have a significant and detrimental impact on (the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services)," Frakes said. 

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, a member of the committee, said mandatory overtime is just one symptom of a larger problem, which is not having enough help. And the state doesn't seem to have enough interest in solving the problem, he said. 

Supporters of the bill described — sometimes emotionally — difficult work conditions, and said their children are growing up, and their parents are growing older, without them. 

Carla Jorgens, a corporal for the Nebraska State Penitentiary and a union secretary who has been there more than 21 years, said the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the Regional Center, are barely surviving in crisis mode. 

Recently, the department lost more than 110 staff members in the prisons in three months'  time. In reporting their staff numbers, she said, the department counts people on long-term military, sick and investigatory leave.

"These people are not contributing any hours worked, but are currently counted as employed in the institutions," Jorgens said. "For every one of these people, someone has to pick up the 40 hours work per week that fewer and fewer of us are expected to work."

There is such a level of frustration, people are abandoning posts and walking off the job, she said.  

"Our spirits are broken and we are worn down," she said. "Unfortunately, our administration and our governor are indifferent to these needs."

Jason Swedlund, a mental health security specialist at the Regional Center for more than 16 years, and a union representative, testified after a 16-hour shift that ended Monday morning.

"At 6:30 tomorrow morning, that phone rings, and I've got to wonder, am I going to be able to take my daughter to school tomorrow morning, even though I did a 16-hour shift today?" he said. 

He believes the turnover rate at the Regional Center is more than 40 percent. Temporary agency staff brought in to help ease the load sign three-month contracts, then train for four to five weeks and work for about eight weeks, without mandatory overtime, he said. 

"Somebody, somewhere has got to help us out. We cannot do it anymore," Swedlund said. 

Frakes, testifying in opposition to the bill, said the department uses mandatory overtime to ensure coverage of posts that must be filled in order to safely operate the prisons, keep offenders and the public safe, and play an essential role in the rehabilitation process. 

"Ensuring that there are enough people available to cover each shift is a day-to-day challenge," he said. 

He continues to work on eliminating the need for mandatory overtime, he said. 

The job is not for everyone and it is difficult to fill the needed positions when the state has a remarkably low unemployment rate, Frakes said. 

Mark LaBouchardiere, HHS director of facilities, said employee vacancy rates in the 24-hour care facilities make mandatory overtime necessary to care for those in the facilities and maintain security.  

Inspector General Doug Koebernick, who did not testify Monday, commented via email that the amount of overtime worked by correctional staff has been a significant concern of his office since his first report was submitted in 2016.

Studies and conversations with staff show ongoing and excessive overtime affects the personal lives of staff, including having negative impacts on relationships, sleeping, eating, self-care and physical and mental health. Excessive overtime also impacts their professional lives, as it can result in low morale, burnout, complacency and fatigue, he said.

The situations at the State Penitentiary and the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution are especially troubling, as high turnover rates have led to an over-reliance on overtime to staff the facilities, Koebernick said.

He has observed and been told that there are times that penitentiary staff are not allowed to leave the facility until staff "volunteer" to stay and work an extra shift. 

"This makes it difficult for anyone who wants to lead a life outside of their work environment, and places a particular strain on single parents or others who have family obligations," Koebernick said. 

editor's picktopical
Teachers back bill authorizing physical restraint; administrators, disability advocates oppose it

The state teachers union supports a bill to allow school employees to physically restrain students who become violent, though a host of organizations representing administrators and students with disabilities oppose it.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, chairman of the Legislature's Education Committee, introduced the bill (LB147), similar to one he introduced two years ago that was stopped by filibuster. 

He made a number of changes based on concerns with the first bill, but he said the intent is the same: to give teachers and other school employees the authority to maintain order in the classroom and protect themselves and students from violence.

“Our public school teachers are on the front lines when it happens,” he said. “Administrators are like the cavalry that shows up after the battle armed with saddle bags full of hindsight.”

The bill defines what steps school personnel can take based on a 1999 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling, Groene said.

Changes from the previous bill include expanding the authority to use physical restraint to all school employees, not just teachers and administrators; and removing the word “force.” Instead, it defines physical restraint as “holding the hands, wrists or torso of a student.” It prohibits the use of any mechanical objects and binding students to an object.

The bill also allows teachers to have administrators or school resource officers remove a student from class for unruly, disruptive or abusive behavior.

Principals wouldn’t be able to return the student to class without the teacher’s permission, unless a special-education plan required it. A conference with parents would be required within two days if the student wasn’t back in class.

Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said the new bill addresses the concerns her organization had two years ago.

Many students who act out are suffering from trauma, and the NSEA has offered free professional development for teachers so they can respond appropriately to students in such circumstances.

But it’s prudent to give teachers the ability to deal with disruptive students, she said. Two years ago, the NSEA did a survey of teachers and 81 percent of the 7,000 who responded supported the bill.

“Even as we take this proactive approach we must balance the needs of all students against the needs of one,” she said.

Removing a student from class can allow the student to calm down, and begins a process to figure out what's causing the problem and how to address it, she said.

But several representatives of organizations said research shows using restraints doesn't reduce incidents, and the bill endorses a reactive approach and sends the wrong message.

At the very least, several opponents said, the bill should require training.

Kyle McGowan said the Nebraska Council of School Administrators, the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association and the Nebraska Association of School Boards all oppose the bill.

“Ultimately none of our three organizations want to be on the side of using more physical restraints,” he said.

Removing a chain of command — allowing teachers to make a decision without administrator approval — reduces the effectiveness of the organization, he said, and good communication is key.

Others said the bill could drive a wedge between teachers and administrators.

Katie Bevins, president of the Nebraska School Psychologists Association, said a proactive approach — improving school climate, addressing bullying issues and training teachers to de-escalate situations — is more effective than reacting to bad behavior with physical restraint.

Juliet Summers, with Voices for Children, said the bill could affect children with disabilities and children of color disproportionately. Those groups already are disproportionately suspended and expelled and the bill essentially allows teachers to suspend students.

“Putting into law a reactive approach sends the wrong message,” she said.

editor's pick
Lincoln man cited after dogs found dead, but officers still have questions

The Animal Control officers who entered the apartment near 28th and F streets on Feb. 1 found two huskies — a male and female, each about 3 years old — dead inside.

They found the apartment in disarray, feces on the floor.

They found one of the dogs tangled up in a window blind cord with a broken leg.

But they couldn’t immediately find the owner of the dogs. “There was no tenant home,” Animal Control director Steve Beal said Monday. “We had a name of somebody but had no contact information; we had a phone number we were trying to reach.”

A necropsy revealed the dogs had likely been dead a week to 10 days before they were discovered, after neighbors complained to their landlord about a foul smell coming from the apartment and suspected something had happened to the dogs.

But the examination couldn’t determine how they died. There was food in their stomachs, so they didn’t die of starvation, and there were no obvious signs of physical abuse or trauma.

“It’s still perplexing to us,” he said. “We don’t have anything to indicate the dogs were abused intentionally.”

Officials finally talked to their 18-year-old owner Saturday. He told them he’d been out of town and hadn’t been in the apartment much in the past month, though he couldn’t provide details, Beal said. He told them he’d asked someone else to look after the dogs, though he couldn’t remember who. And he said he’d returned at one point, found them dead, and left again.

The owner was cited for suspicion of animal neglect and for failing to remove a dead animal.

But the case remains open, Beal said. His officers are still trying to piece together a timeline leading up to the deaths of the dogs, and they’re trying to find people who may have come in contact with the dogs before they died.

Each year, Animal Control officers investigate one or two cases of an animal dying after being neglected or treated cruelly, Beal said.

“Thank goodness we don’t get a lot of calls like this.”

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star file photo 

Scott Frakes, director of Nebraska Department of Corrections