Maine restaurant servers fight to protect minimum wage increase

Maine restaurant servers fight to protect minimum wage increase

Maine restaurant servers fight to protect minimum wage increase

“With the wage going up I can look forward to an income I can depend on during slow months and when bad weather prevents customers from getting out. It helps me budget my bills and allows me to save up more steadily for large purchases like a car or a home. It gives me stability to know that I can clothe my son in the winter when he’s outgrowing coats and boots,” Kimberly Taliadouros, a server from Camden who has worked in the restaurant industry for twenty years, told members of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee on Wednesday. “The promise of a steady wage in addition to my tips will help me provide a better life for my son and my family and allow me to work less overtime so I can spend time to enjoy that better life. Please respect the will of the voters and allow my raise to remain.”

Taliadouros was one of dozens of servers who spoke or submitted testimony on legislation attempting to roll back the increase to the subminimum wage for tipped workers, a raise that Maine voters approved by referendum in November. While a large contingent organized by the restaurant industry attended the hearing to argue for cutting the tipped wage (with some owners shutting down their restaurants or paying to transport their staff to the Capitol), many bravely spoke out against the position of their own employers and made the case for respecting the will of the voters and protecting the wage increase.

Servers and other minimum wage increase supporters wait for their chance to testify.

“Employers have been stoking fears about losing tips that aren’t true, and supportive tipped workers are often scared of losing their jobs if they speak out,” testified Amber Mondor of Orono. “We could spend all day arguing about math and the obvious economic benefits of giving tipped workers a raise, but at the end of the day, what is truly at stake is so much more than the $4 that is stolen from servers every hour. It is the respect, the equity, and the dignity of individuals that is lost.”

“I have worked at a restaurant where prices were so low that though only being responsible for my own expenses, I was essentially living on peanut butter sandwiches for four months. I make enough now to pay rent and live comfortably, but I still essentially live paycheck to paycheck. More than anything, an increase in pay would simply allow me to begin saving up,” said Noah Fardon of Portland.

Servers from across the state shared personal stories from their work lives, with many referencing the financial instability in pay that comes with being a server.

“When it’s busy, I tend to make what I consider enough money, but the restaurant isn’t always that way, especially during some weekdays and the colder months. There are a multitude of factors which determine how much I get paid, and most of them are not factors I have any control over. During this past winter, there were several instances when bad weather (ice, snow, freezing rain, etc.) caused the restaurant to be very slow, and I ended up leaving a five to six hour shift with anywhere from $20-$40, give or take a few dollars. On the slowest night I’ve ever worked, I made $13 in five hours.” testified Lydia Schneider of Brunswick. “There is a reason that the state of Maine collectively decided to raise the minimum wage. There is a reason that this law passed with more votes than any citizen initiative in Maine history, and there is a reason that more people voted on Question 4 than voted for president. We made this decision as a state, and we are determined to enforce it.”

“Opponents of the one fair wage say that servers have no need to make a higher base wage because they all make well over $30 an hour with tips. This is not the case for me. Just last Saturday I worked for ten hours at my place of employment. Saturdays are known as the ‘busy days,’ the ‘days where waiters and waitresses make all their money.’ Well, at the end of the night, I walked out of the door with $40,” testified Andrea Feeney of Portland. “The people voted in a wage increase in November, and implementing this increase in the minimum wage means that I would have a consistent paycheck to bounce back on when I take home a small amount in tips.”

“I’ve worked in the restaurant industry since I was 15 years old.  I’ve worked as a server in Irish pubs, fine dining and seafood restaurants,” said Jenna Tuckey of Gardiner, “The hardest thing about working a tipped job is the inconsistency, not knowing what you will make when you go to work and not being able to budget.”

Servers also addressed issues of sexual harassment, which they find themselves more vulnerable to when relying on their customer’s whims for the majority of their wages.

“If I challenge a customer who objectifies me, touches me, or says something inappropriately, I run the risk of not having the money to feed my family,” testified Catrina Camire of Portland. “I need a more stable base wage. I need more consistency in my life so I can plan for a healthy and happy future with my family.”

“In my time as a tipped worker, I have experienced people telling me to smile or feeling it is appropriate to wrap their arms around my waist and squeeze. I have been called horrible names and felt physically threatened. Some people feel it is okay to treat myself and other servers like me this way because they pay us. If I speak up and challenge someone who calls me names or touches me without my consent, I run the risk of not being tipped and therefore losing out on my paycheck. So, I keep my mouth shut and just hope that it won’t happen again,” Esther Pew, a server working in Portland, told the committee. “I have faith in the Maine people, and I also have faith in you, as the people elected to represent us, to uphold the will of the voters and respect what we voted into law this past November.”

Servers described their work not as a starter job, but as a career that demands skill and stamina and should be worthy of respect and fair wages.

“As a server for over three decades I have also beaten up my body by working hard on my feet. It is a physically as well as mentally demanding job. Running back and forth doing task to task can take a toll on every part of your body. I have co-workers with bad knees, sore backs, neck spasms, and everything in between,” said Laura Gisseman of East Andover. “We, the people, voted for this increase, and for it to increase annually. A repeal of this bill is not only a slap in the face to servers but to all of the voters as well.”

“I have been in the restaurant industry for over 45 years now. My aunt was a chef and I had my first job with her when I was thirteen years old. This is hard work, very trying work, that can be very physically and mentally tough. As a server I’ve worked long hours, wearing down my feet, knees, and hips,” said Roxanne Wentworth of Bethel. “Having a higher base wage means that I would have the ability to go out and eat myself. Studies from other states and cities that don’t have a separate wage for servers show that restaurants continue to prosper the same. They still make money and continue to be successful.”

Restaurant workers and other minimum wage supporters traveling to the hearing from nearly every county and many stayed long into the night to wait for their chance to testify.

Server Jenna Rhea testifies before LCRED – photo via Andi Parkinson

“While servers in busy, tourist-oriented regions of Maine undoubtedly earn significant amounts in tips and, therefore, reasonable incomes, that’s certainly not the case in all areas of Maine, including The County. For the most recent pay period, the tipped staff at The Vault earned an average of $12.10 per hour of work, and I can assure you that this level of compensation is higher than at many other restaurants in the area,” said Kent Wotton of Houlton. “Legally, workers are entitled to compensation by employers if they do not meet minimum wage requirements post-tip — including during the hours before and after service. In theory, this should address concerns around inconsistent compensation, but it does not. The rules in this area are complex and their enforcement sporadic, and employers too often skate on these requirements. I know from experience.”

Pro-wage increase servers also addressed head-on the concerns of some opponents that tips would go down as their wages increase. All reported the same or higher levels of tipping as before the first wage increase went into effect.

“Since the minimum wage increase went into effect in January, I have not seen any change in the tips my customers leave me, but I have seen a change in another way: a little, consistent bump in my paycheck,” said Julia Legler of Portland. “I know that there are workers in this industry who are fearful about what comes next since this increase passed. I’ve talked to servers in other states where there is no separate subminimum wage and they’ve said that their restaurants are thriving and people are still tipping. I firmly believe this is the right thing to do and I would strongly urge this committee to reject any attempts to roll this increase back for restaurant workers.”

“I haven’t seen any evidence of this on my shifts and no other servers that I know have mentioned it,” said Nat Anderson-Lippert of Portland, who also addressed the claim that employers regularly top-up servers’ wages to the full minimum wage. “From working in a number of restaurants, which have a variety of accounting practices and levels of competence in accounting, I can say that I don’t have confidence that that all restaurants even track the wages closely enough to make a determination about whether a server makes the minimum wage, let alone pay that difference.  This leaves it up to servers to advocate for themselves for their employers to make up the rest of the wage, something extremely intimidating in an industry where you can easily be penalized with bad shifts or less hours if you raise any concerns.”

“I believe that I will be better off with a higher, more consistent base wage thanks to the referendum passed by voters. I’ve already seen better compensation for long, slow weeks since this went into effect. I have also seen no decrease in my tips since the wage increase and I do not believe my tips will be affected by this increase in my pay,” said Aaron Carlson of Portland. “I also know that there have been discussions and attempts to discourage servers from supporting this issue, even in my own workplace. But I believe that fundamentally this is the right thing to do. I strongly urge this committee to reject these attempts to roll back the increase for tipped workers as it was passed by voters.”

“I’ve heard the opposition saying that because my wage went up, my tips will go down. I have actually experienced the opposite. Since the minimum wage increase went into effect in January, I have actually seen an increase in my tips,” testified Jessica Wells of Portland. “A higher wage allows me to pay my bills and support my daughter. It may allow me to make my rent without selling lawn furniture which I had to do a few days ago. It would allow me to buy healthy basic food and keep my lights on. It would allow me to do what any other working professional does – support myself.”

Several servers who have also worked in states that already have one fair wage for tipped workers said they saw no difference in rates of tipping.

“The major difference between my experience in California and Maine has been that in California I always knew I was getting a check I could use for my rent, even during the slow season. I have seen no difference in my tips, regardless of what my base pay has been,” said Madalyn Zielinski, who has worked as a server for 11 years in different states. “I was excited about the campaign to raise wages for tipped workers.  Since it has gone into effect I have seen an increase of about $25 a week, which has made a big difference during the slow season.”

“During the campaign I was working at a local restaurant whose owner told us that if we voted yes on 4 for the minimum wage increase that her restaurant would close. When we discussed the minimum wage campaign among ourselves, she told us anyone who spoke in favor would be fired. It’s time for tipped workers to get the same wage as everyone else. I urge you to stand by the will of the people and act on behalf of the workers who have been intimidated, who are scared, and who will benefit greatly from this long overdue change,” said Zielinski.

This post was originally published on the Maine Beacon and has been re-posted with permission.

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