Maine restaurant workers, owners stand together for minimum wage increase

Maine restaurant workers, owners stand together for minimum wage increase

Vena’s Fizz House, an Old Port bar and restaurant, is usually closed on Tuesday mornings, but today it was packed as restaurant workers from across Maine and other supporters of a referendum to increase the state minimum wage gathered to share their stories of struggling to get by on low wages.

The citizen initiative they support will be on the ballot this November and would incrementally raise Maine’s minimum wage to $12 by 2020. It would also gradually increase the subminimum wage for workers who receive tips to the base wage for all workers by 2024.

“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 Steve Corman, owner of Vena’s Fizz House. “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.”

Corman is currently the exception in Maine. Most workers who earn tips are paid a subminimum wage of $3.75 an hour, with the expectation that the rest of their pay is made up in tips from customers. 82% of tipped workers in Maine are women.

Speakers at the gathering today 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.

Vena's Fizz House owner Steve Corman speaks in favor of the minimum wage referendum.

Vena’s Fizz House owner Steve Corman speaks in favor of the minimum wage referendum.

“I have been given phone numbers instead of tips. Men have attempted to grope me. 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.”

McIntosh and four of her colleagues at the restaurant Five Fifty-Five wrote an op-ed that was published in the Portland Press Herald this morning opposing their boss’ anti-minimum wage advocacy.

Republicans in the state legislature have continued to delay sending the minimum wage referendum out to voters, instead standing with  corporate lobbyists who support a weaker proposal that excludes thousands of Maine’s lowest-paid workers. Supporters of the citizen initiated referendum have criticized the competing measure as a disingenuous attempt to split the pro-minimum wage vote in the hopes of delaying or derailing a real minimum wage increase.

Last week the Maine 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.

Photo: restaurant server Julia Legler speaks at the minimum wage press conference.

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