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.

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Caitlin Dewey

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.”

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