Last November, the Maine State Legislature voted to raise the minimum wage for restaurant servers. Then in mid-June, they voted to lower it back down.
And lots of Maine’s restaurant workers were thrilled.
The minimum wage for tipped workers in Maine is half that of the state’s regular minimum wage ($9). It’s called the “tip credit” rule, as it allows employers to take a credit of up to 50 percent from their employees’ wages, because servers will generally make that money back (and hopefully more) in tips. If tips and wages, together, don't equal the state's minimum wage, employers are required to make up the difference.
But, at November’s referendum, the Maine House voted to raise the minimum wage by $1 each year (through 2024) and to remove the tip credit rule entirely, meaning that all employees — tipped or not — would be earning the state’s minimum wage, reports the Portland Press Herald.
That's when something unexpected happened.
State Senator James Dill, a Democrat who initially voted to raise wages, told the Washington Post that after the Nov. referendum passed, he received “hundreds” of calls and emails from servers who were worried about their livelihood.
As a result, Dill threw his support behind a Republican measure to return the “tip credit” rule. After passing through the Senate on June 7, the bill was brought before the House on June 13, where it passed with a vote of 110-37.
Maine Governor Paul LePage signed the bill into law last week. It will go into effect 90 days after Legislature adjourned, reports the Bangor Daily News.
As the Washington Post reports, servers were worried about the ramifications of the new laws for two reasons: first, that it would force employers to raise prices on their menu items, which could affect their current tips; and second, and perhaps more importantly, that employers might be forced to cut servers’ shifts as a result.
“I don’t need to be ‘saved,’ and I’ll be damned if small groups of uninformed people are voting on my livelihood,” said Sue Vallenza, a Maine bartender who spoke to the Post. Vallenza further said she’s already seeing less in tips as a result of customers who believe the wage hike had already went into effect.
As the Post notes, labor activists are bracing themselves for similar outcries in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., but critics say that Maine’s servers don’t speak for the country’s restaurant workers.
Dave Palmer of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a firm that works to raise wages and improve working conditions for restaurant workers, tells the post that plenty of lower-income servers would support an increase in wages.
“We do not believe what we see in Maine is representative of the majority of workers,” Palmer told the Post.
“There’s no other industry that gets away with not paying their workers because customers can,” he later added. “This is bigger than any one state.”