Portland City Council turns its back on tipped workers

Portland City Council turns its back on tipped workers

On Wednesday night, the Portland City Council took their final vote on an ordinance increasing the municipal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour in 2016 and $10.68 in 2017, making Portland the first city in Maine to raise the minimum wage above the state’s $7.50.

The night also saw a less-progressive move from the Council, however, as they voted 7-2 to remove an increase to the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers from the ordinance, leaving the tipped wage at the state minimum of $3.75 per hour.

The amendment makes Portland one of the few jurisdictions in the country that has increased the minimum wage without also increasing the sub-minimum wage guaranteed to employees who receive at least $30 a month in tips.

The vote came after hours of testimony, including from several tipped workers who shared their experiences.

Heather McIntosh and son Liam

Heather McIntosh and son Liam

“In January, February and March, I might make $20 or I might have to go to work and make no money,” said Heather McIntosh, a restaurant server who has worked in the industry in Portland for twenty years. “I work 70 hours five months out of the year so I can afford to live in the city I was born in, so I can support my child’s basic needs.”

“Everyone deserves to feed their families and right now one out of two school-aged children in Portland are food insecure,” said McIntosh, a single mother.

82% of tipped employees in Portland are women and many are working to support a family on an average wage of $8.77 an hour.

“When you go into work you never know what you’re going to walk away with at the end of the day and this makes it really hard for me to budget and plan,” said Julia Legler, a restaurant server in Portland. She also described how the fact of customers, rather than her employer, being responsible for most of her compensation puts her in a vulnerable position.

Julia Legler

Julia Legler

“I often have to put up with sexual harassment at work and I have to make the decision whether to stand up for myself and tell my customers that it’s not OK to treat me this way, or put up with it because they are the ones who are paying me,” said Legler. “Miss out on a tip or feel uncomfortable and unsafe at work. I don’t think I should be having to make that decision.”

Some Portland restaurant owners and representatives of the Maine Restaurant association argued against increasing the tipped wage beyond $3.75 per hour.

“The free market has already corrected the minimum wage,” insisted Chris Tyll, owner of a Pat’s Pizza Franchise in downtown Portland.

Other Portland restaurant owners, however, supported the increase.

I pay my tipped employees a base of $9 an hour plus tips with semi-regular raises. Despite many of the myths that restaurant owners have told about the drastic effects that these things have on business, the truth is that it’s been great for my bar and restaurant,” said Steve Corman, owner of Vena’s Fizz House. “I have two full time and 15 part time employees in my Fore Street location and possibly will be opening a new store soon. My employees really appreciate the predictable source of income this wage gives them, and they feel respected for the work that they do.

Negative economic repercussions have not been seen in other jurisdictions that have raised the tipped wage. The seven states that have no sub-minimum wage for tipped workers have seen above-average job growth both generally and within the restaurant industry.

Opponents of increasing the wage also argued that the issues raised by tipped employees and their advocates would be better addressed at another level of government.

“I also do support, as far as I know right now, the proposal that’s going to be on the statewide ballot, which does raise the base wage for tipped workers and actually moves toward a whole change toward how we do compensation,” said Councilor John Hinck, who introduced the amendment to lower the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. “In that case it doesn’t stop at the borders of Portland and I think it’s the right way to do it. Plus, the timeframes are longer, so I’m all on board for that.”

“It’s a good thing to have this conversation periodically and if we had done this at the federal and state level, maybe you folks wouldn’t be dealing with it right now,” said Greg Dugal, CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association.

Dugal and his organization have actually opposed minimum wage increases of any size at every level of government. Earlier this year, Dugal testified against a 25-cent increase to the state minimum wage being considered by the Maine Legislature.

The city councilors who voted against lowering the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers (and instead supported keeping it at fifty percent of the full wage, as it is under state law) were Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall.

Mayor Michael Brennan and councilors David Brenerman, Justin Costa, Jill Duson, Jon Hinck, Nick Mavodones and Ed Suslovic all voted in favor of the amendment to reduce the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers to $3.75 an hour.

Photo: Danielle Donnelly of Restaurant Opportunity Centers (ROC) United addresses the Portland City Council

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