When a new restaurant opens or an existing one closes, the impact is felt close to home. Literally. “Unlike a lot of companies, we don’t outsource our jobs to other countries or even other states. We usually hire within a 10 to 15-mile radius. The job gain or loss is likely to be experienced by someone in that community, not someone in New York or Pennsylvania,” says Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association (NJRHA).

Focusing on education, advocacy, and support, NJRHA serves New Jersey’s 300,000 hospitality professionals and the eating and drinking destinations that generate near $12 billion in annual activity.

Halvorsen will speak about NJRHA at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Wednesday, March 15, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club of Princeton, Mercer Street. The cost is $25, $40 for non-members. Register at www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.

Halvorsen will cover what is happening in the industry today, what NJRHA anticipates moving forward, and some of the legislative challenges they are addressing. Through NJRHA’s capitol watch initiative, the organization keeps abreast of the state legislature’s bills and ordinances.

Current issues include minimum wage, paid sick leave, immigration reform, liquor licensing, and predictive scheduling.

Minimum wage: NJRHA opposes legislation that would automatically increase the minimum wage to $15. It supports a slow increase over several years while adding minors, seasonal, and training wage categories. It also opposes any change in the tipped wage.

“People use the words ‘minimum wage’ and ‘living wage’ interchangeably. But they’re not the same. There’s no one-size-fits-all for every industry and every business,” Halvorsen says.

“We’ve talked with the legislature about coming up with a responsible wage increase. If you were to suddenly demand a $15 minimum wage, it would severely impact business growth.

“Our industry is very labor intensive. Any kind of labor mandate or minimum wage affects our industry far more than it would for a technology company that can make a $100,000 profit with one or two employees. For a restaurant to make that kind of profit, you need 50 employees,” she says.

Paid sick leave: NJRHA opposes the current legislation as it stands now in the Assembly and Senate. “No one in our industry wants someone coming to work sick. What you want is a responsible policy that allows businesses to operate while allowing employees to take time off. There are several paid leave ordinances in New Jersey. Many of my members have businesses in three or four municipalities, so trying to comply with several different paid-time off policies is challenging,” Halvorsen says.

Recently, NJRHA worked with the town of New Brunswick to come up with a policy that addresses the needs of both employers and employees. The policy allows employers flexibility in its obligations to a diverse group of workers, including full and part time workers, and seasonal workers. NJRHA is in favor of having one sick leave policy that would apply to all municipalities using the New Brunswick policy as the model.

Immigration reform: NJRHA supports comprehensive and responsible immigration reform including a workable employee verification system, worker and visa programs, and an earned path to permanent residence for certain immigrants.“We want people coming into the country to be properly vetted, but we want to be able to hire immigrants. People from all over world work in the hospitality industry,” Halvorsen says.

Liquor license reform: NJRHA opposes any legislation that does not acknowledge the investment of current license holders.

“Critics say it’s expensive and hard to get. And that’s true,” she says. However, she adds, the current proposal to significantly lower the license fee for anyone, anywhere, would not be fair to people who have already paid often over a million dollars for a license.

“You have to do things in a responsible and thoughtful fashion,” she says.

Predictive scheduling: NJRHA opposes any kind of mandated scheduling law. “Employees like this even less than the employers,” says Halvorsen. “It’s important for everyone to have a flexible work schedule. If it’s slow on a Friday night, and the manager asks if anyone wants to go home early, a lot of workers say yes. [On the other hand] if you get a large-group reservation at the last minute, and need to bring new workers in, you would have to pay a surcharge for that [under proposed legislation]. Furthermore, predictive scheduling wouldn’t allow employees to swap shifts. It doesn’t work for the employer or the employee.”

What Halvorsen is especially passionate about is the educational opportunities NJRHA makes possible to high school students. NJRHA has teamed up with the National Restaurant Educational Foundation to offer a program titled ProStart. The program teaches students both culinary techniques and management skills. Students who complete the two-year Pro­Start program have the option of working for a restaurant directly after high school or going on to hospitality and culinary arts colleges and universities. NJRHA offers scholarships to eligible students.

In addition to working with high school students, NJRHA gives members the opportunity to receive the ServSafe Food Safety Manager Training and Certification for free. Currently, state law requires at least one person per establishment to be certified.

Halvorsen grew up in Loch Arbour, a small village outside Asbury Park. Her father was an airline pilot for Eastern Airlines and also volunteered for Meals on Wheels. Her mother worked for Monmouth University in the political science department and was active with the League of Women Voters. “They taught me the importance of community and being involved,” says Halvorsen, who holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Monmouth University.

Her first job out of school was at Radio City Music Hall, and she has been working the in the hospitality business ever since. Prior to joining NJRHA, Halvorsen was the director of marketing for Jenkinson’s Boardwalk, Point Pleasant Beach, and Casino Pier in Seaside Heights.

Halvorsen encourages business owners to be engaged with their communities. “Regardless of your business, get involved with local chambers and organizations that represent your industry. Unless legislators here from the business community, they’re going to assume everything is fine. We need to be sure our voices are heard. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in.”

Halvorsen sees the restaurant industry as a place of opportunity. “We work with a diverse population,” she says. “It’s a great career start-over. It’s a great place even if you don’t have a formal education. You can make a living, you can own your own restaurant. You can go from dish washer to owner. This is a place where the American Dream is still a reality.”

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