Restaurant workers in Maine rejected it
Voters passed a referendum in November; servers said it’d cost them money and got the state to cancel it.
As the Maine House voted on a bill to reduce the minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers, Jason Buckwalter and a dozen fellow servers listened to the vote call from the backroom of a Bangor steakhouse. All hoped to hear one thing: that state legislators had voted to lower their wages. Some cried with relief, Buckwalter said, when lawmakers voted 110-37 in favor of lowering the minimum wage.
The June 13 vote brought a conclusion to a political saga that has upended conventional wisdom about the minimum wage.
Workers traditionally have supported such increases, which advocates say are critical to lifting millions out of poverty.
But in Maine, servers actively campaigned to overturn the results of a November referendum raising servers’ salaries from $3.75 in 2016 to $12 by 2024, saying it would cause customers to tip less and reduce their take-home income.
The bill was signed into law on June 22 by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a strident critic of raising the tipped minimum wage, and will go into effect in January 2018.
The servers’ campaign against increasing the minimum wage was a blow to labor activists, who believed the Maine referendum could kick off similar votes in places such as New York, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
“The next fight is on the national level,” said Buckwalter, who organized other servers to lobby Maine politicians and is now working with waitstaff in Minneapolis and Seattle. “I had lost my faith in government. This restored it, a little.”
Federal labor law allows restaurants to pay their tipped workers less than the local minimum wage, provided that their total earnings, with tips, meet or exceed that minimum. If servers’ earnings fall short of that, employers must pay the difference.
In reality, it’s not clear how often restaurants do that. Furthermore, activists say, workers who make the bulk of their income in tips depend on getting good shifts to make ends meet. That means they avoid any actions that could upset management, including asking for owed money or complaining about customers who harass or bother them.
As a result, said Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley, tipped workers tend to have a poverty rate almost twice that of non-tipped workers, and they are more likely to rely on public assistance.
everyone is making a lot of money in tips,” Allegretto said, “especially in an industry where you can’t complain about it.”
At first, that argument seemed to be persuasive in Maine, where more than 80,000 people work in food service, according to the state department of labor. The average annual wage is slightly over $17,000 a year for restaurant workers, but that includes tipped servers at full-service restaurants and people who do not make tips, such as back-of-house staff and fast-food workers.
A November referendum to raise the regular and tipped minimum wages — $7.50 and $3.75, respectively — won with 55 percent of the vote. But almost immediately after the vote was tallied, tipped servers began to complain that the result would hurt their livelihoods.
At a packed, 10-hour April meeting of the Maine Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, dozens of servers said some confused customers already were tipping less.
Sue Vallenza, a 55-year-old bartender at the Pilot House in Kennebunk, Maine, said she saw her hourly tips drop by more than $2 per hour, from the $20 to $30 per hour she made before.
“I don’t need to be ‘saved,’ and I’ll be damned if small groups of uninformed people are voting on my livelihood,” Vallenza said. “You can’t cut someone off at the knees like that.”
Activists maintain that the public never heard from the rural diner types, because those workers — the ones most in need of a higher minimum wage — are generally not in a position to complain about their earnings or to take time off work.
“We do not believe what we see in Maine is representative of the majority of workers,” said Dave Palmer, the managing director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national group of low-wage restaurant workers that fought for Maine’s referendum. “We have enough of a sense from our members around the country that this is important to them.”
But James Dill, a Democratic state senator who initially supported the referendum, said he received hundreds of emails and phone calls from unhappy servers.
After the outcry, he signed onto a Republican measure to lower the tipped wage down again.
“I realize not everyone is in the same boat,” said Dill. “But the ones who called me were saying, ‘I make $20 to $25 per hour, I’ve bought a house with that income, I support my kids — it’s really important that you don’t mess with my tips.’ “
“I believe in a higher minimum wage,” he added. “But the people who this was impacting didn’t want it.”