Six Mainers of diverse backgrounds from all over the state each took their turn signing an application in Augusta today to begin gathering signatures for a citizen-initiated referendum to raise the minimum wage. The referendum, intended for the 2016 ballot, would see the minimum wage in Maine raised from $7.50 an hour to $9 an hour in 2017 and then by a dollar a year until 2020, when it would reach $12 an hour and then be indexed to the cost of living in future years.
"I'm signing this application and helping to launch this campaign because I care about fairness and the future of our state," said Jeff Loxtercamp of Bangor. "I'm 53 years old, I have an advanced degree, and I work a job at a big box store for a poverty wage. Paying the kinds of wages that many big companies do should be criminal. They treat people as if they're less than human. It's time to turn things around."
Jim Wellehan, owner of Lamey-Wellehan Shoes, who signed the application on behalf of the Maine Small Business Coalition, explained that raising the minimum wage will provide a boost for local Maine businesses, who often pay higher salaries and are forced to compete with out-of-state corporations paying poverty wages.
"When we raise the minimum wage, these workers will have a bit more to spend, and the economy will grow a bit more easily," said Wellehan. "Henry Ford understood that if he was going to sell cars, he had to pay his workers a wage adequate for them to buy them and the same is true for us on a statewide level."
For Karen Johnson of Lewiston, who has worked as a restaurant server for 25 years, the issue of raising the wage for tipped employees is particularly important. The referendum would raise the tipped wage from $3.75 to $5 in 2017 and then gradually increase it until it matches the basic minimum wage in 2024.
"Many people don't know that there even is a sub-minimum wage for tipped employees and that servers have to rely on tips to make ends meet," said Johnson. "Servers are some of the lowest-paid employees in Maine, on average making just $8.93 an hour. Raising the minimum wage and raising the tipped wage to the same level will get rid of the uncertainty that comes with not knowing if you'll make enough in tips to afford rent or food."
The submission of the application represents the first step in the referendum process, which will require the gathering of well over 60,000 valid signatures from Maine voters. The campaign to collect these signatures will be a joint effort of several statewide advocacy organizations, under the title Mainers for Fair Wages.
"This referendum will help over one hundred and twenty-five thousand Mainers who are working hard, often at more than one job. We'll need support from all over the state to make it happen," said Amy Halsted, who signed the application on behalf of the 32,000 members of the Maine People's Alliance and will serve as campaign manager for Mainers for Fair Wages. "If you believe that no one working full time should struggle to put food on the table for their family, please visit FairWageMaine.com today to support the campaign."
For Matt Schlobohm, the executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, who signed on behalf of 40,000 union members across Maine, 2016 can't come soon enough.
"The costs of groceries, childcare, housing, and other basics have gone up for years. But wages haven't come close to keeping up," said Schlobohm. "This is about seniors who can't retire and parents working endless hours away from their families. Working people deserve fair wages, they deserve work with dignity, and they deserve better than poverty for full time work. Raising wages is long overdue and we will do all that we can to make sure this initiative becomes law."