Maine Restaurant Workers Debate Merit of Minimum Wage Changes

Last November, Maine voters ordered a raise in the minimum wage – but some servers want to send it back

Last November, Maine voters ordered a raise in the minimum wage – but some servers want to send it back.

Waiters, waitresses, managers, and restaurant owners showed up in large numbers to the Maine State House Wednesday, testifying in a public hearing about a change to the state’s minimum wage.

Senator Roger Katz (R-Augusta) is introducing legislation to modify part of the law that applies to wait staff.

The 2016 voter approved referendum raised Maine’s minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $12 by the year 2020.

A part of that referendum eliminated what’s called the “tip credit” that servers receive: a $3.75 an hour base wage, to supplement tips. The new law gradually increases that base wage until it reaches $12 in the year 2024.

While it would seem this law helps servers take home more money, some insist it won’t.

“We want to see the tip credit reinstated,” said Valerie King, a serve at Finn’s Irish Pub in Ellsworth. “This is going to hurt us.”

King said if employers need to pay wait staff more, they will be forced to raise prices for food.

“Prices will go to a point that my customers who are on fixed incomes can’t come in and eat,” she said. King also worries if customers think their servers have received a big pay increase, they will tip less – ending in a net decrease in pay for servers.

But other workers in the restaurant industry disagree.

“Most people I’ve talked to have not seen a change in their tips,” said Heather McIntosh, a waitress at Boone’s in Portland. “Tipping is part of our culture. It’s what you do for great service.”

McIntosh testified against Sen. Katz’s bill, in part because she believes it goes against the will of the voters.

Sen. Katz said he doesn’t think voters realized the tip credit controversy would be one consequence.

“People in Maine clearly wanted the minimum wage to go up, but this idea that it would fundamentally change the nature of the restaurant business was in nobody’s mind,” said Sen. Katz.

“We’ve got to listen to the thousands of people saying we know you intended to help us, but you’re hurting us, and please change this law,” he said.

Some restaurant owners let wait staff skip their shifts to attend the public hearing Wednesday, while Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro completely closed to have staff testify.

One restaurant owner told the Labor committee that she has already given her staff a raise, without having to charge more for food. Kathryn Harnish, owner of the Vault Restaurant in Houlton, believes tips are as generous as ever.

“We believe it’s our moral obligation to our employees to provide that [increased wage],” she said. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s good for business.”

The Legislature’s Labor committee is expected to schedule a work session on the bill, and decide if they should send the proposal to lawmakers.

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