This morning, restaurant servers, supportive business owners, and campaign volunteers gathered at Vena’s Fizz House, an Old Port bar and restaurant, to speak in support of the referendum to raise the minimum wage for all workers – including workers who earn tips. Speakers shared their struggles living on tips and getting paid a subminimum wage, and lent their support to the referendum to incrementally raise Maine’s minimum wage to $12 by 2020 and to gradually increase the minimum wage for tipped workers until they make the same minimum wage as other workers by 2024.
Steve Corman, who co-owns Vena’s Fizz House, welcomed guests and spoke about the importance of paying his employees one fair wage.
“When my wife and I opened our doors, we made each other a promise: we promised that we would pay our bartenders and servers one fair wage, instead of the lower subminimum wage that most restaurants pay tipped workers,” said Corman. “We did this for a couple of reasons: first, we both worked in the restaurant industry for many years before we became teachers, so we understood the precarious and stressful nature of relying on tips for income; second, we strongly believe in the simple fact that if you pay a decent wage you will retain employees who feel valued, will work harder, be more invested, and ultimately save you time and money.”
In Maine, workers who earn tips are often paid a separate subminimum wage of $3.75 an hour, with the expectation that the rest of their pay is made up in tips from customers. An overwhelming majority (82%) of tipped workers in Maine are women. Speakers argued that relying on the generosity of customers as the source of their wages is a fundamentally unfair wage system that creates an environment of unsteady pay, unreliable work hours, and a feeling of helplessness to do anything in the face of sexual harassment from customers.
“I have been given phone numbers instead of tips, I have been groped. I have been called ‘the help’. I have been told the only reason I make tips is because of how I look or what I wear,” said Ali Monceaux, a server who works at a national chain restaurant in Windham. “It’s no surprise that more than a third of all sexual harassment claims nationally come from the restaurant industry. When our livelihood is tied directly to our tips we are forced to decide between standing up for ourselves or making sure we get the tips that we need to pay our bills. That is not right.”
“Even when you work in the busiest city at a fine-dining restaurant you still never know if you'll make enough to get by. I am a single mother and in order to cope with inconsistent schedules and living entirely off of tips I have to take out additional student loans to make ends meet,” said Heather McIntosh, who has worked in Portland restaurant industry for over 20 years. “On average, servers make $8.72 an hour including tips. Tipped workers are three times more likely to live in poverty than other low-wage workers – more than double the rate for working women overall. It’s not right that someone who is putting food on your table can’t do so for her own family at the end of the day.”
The event comes as Republicans in the legislature continue to delay sending the referendum out to voters at the behest of corporate lobbyists who support a slower, weaker proposal that excludes thousands of Maine’s lowest-paid workers by maintaining a subminimum wage for tipped workers. Supporters of the citizen initiated referendum have criticized the effort to attach a competing measure as nothing more than a disingenuous attempt to split the pro-minimum wage vote in the hopes of seeing no increase pass. Last week the House of Representatives voted 78-69 to advance the referendum without a competing measure attached.
“Every time there’s a conversation about raising the minimum wage, opponents make apocalyptic predictions about the effects. I’m here to say: Don’t buy the hype. In the seven states where there is no subminimum wage, the restaurant industry is growing, average menu prices have stayed the same, people still tip their servers, and most importantly, fewer servers are living in poverty,” said Julia Legler, a restaurant server who helped collect hundreds of signatures to put the issue on the ballot.
“This is a campaign grounded in fairness - no one should live in poverty and everyone should earn a wage that can sustain themselves and their family. Too many restaurant workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women, are working long hours and not making enough to make ends meet. It’s time that all workers got a raise,” said Legler.