Bartending in Portland has been a good job for Kylie Shea, helping her buy a house and go to school without accumulating too much debt, but she worries about her future income under a proposal city voters will take up this November that could change the way tipped workers are paid.
“Workers are not asking for this, and we oppose Question D because it hurts the same workers it purports to help,” Shea said.
On Tuesday, Shea was among about a dozen restaurant workers, bartenders and servers who gathered at Bruno’s Restaurant and Tavern to speak out against Question D, which seeks to increase Portland’s minimum wage to $18 per hour by 2025 and eliminates the tip credit or sub-minimum wage that allows employers of tipped workers to pay less than the minimum wage provided the difference is made up in tips.
“Tip credit preservation is not a partisan issue,” said Joshua Chaisson, a spokesperson for Restaurant Industry United, a group that opposes tip credit elimination in Portland and which hosted the rally at Bruno’s. “It’s common-sense, pragmatic politics and most importantly, it’s what we the workers and we the industry want in Maine.”
Chaisson, who also works as a server in Portland, said there are unintended consequences to eliminating the tip credit, including a shift toward counter rather than table service, increased automation and restaurants choosing to eliminate tips to justify raising menu prices to support paying higher base wages.
“It will force a lot of us senior staff and career servers to work outside the city of Portland and really kill and obliterate the dining scene here in Portland,” Chaisson said.
Question D, like three other referendums on November’s city ballot, is being brought forward by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Livable Portland campaign.
In addition to eliminating the tip credit or sub-minimum wage, the proposal seeks to raise the city’s minimum wage (currently $13 per hour for hourly employees and set to increase to $15 by 2024) and create a city-run Department of Fair Labor Practices to ensure wage and worker safety laws are enforced. Supporters have said it will raise wages for all workers and create more stability for tipped workers during slower times of the year like the winter months.
“Every worker in the city deserves to be paid $18 per hour,” said Ethan Strimling, a former mayor who is a DSA member and member of the Livable Portland campaign. “No worker should be left behind.”
Strimling pointed to other states where tipped workers earn the same minimum wage as other types of workers – there are eight according to the nonprofit think tank the Economic Policy Institute – and he said it’s an indication that the policy is successful elsewhere.
“The question for these employees is simply, ‘Would you rather have $9 per hour plus tips or $18 per hour plus tips?” Strimling said. “I don’t know any workers who would rather have $9 plus tips.”
At the state level, Maine eliminated the tip credit in 2016 as part of a larger minimum wage proposal, though the Legislature and then-Gov. Paul LePage later reinstated the option.
Strimling said the effort was led by LePage and restaurant industry lobbyists, though Chaisson said he and other servers were also opposed to the 2016 state initiative and fought for the tip credit to be reinstated.
“Five years later, we’re right back to the drawing board,” Chaisson said.
Eliminating the tip credit is “going to kill the industry, basically,” server Craig Howard said after the rally.
Howard, who has been a waiter at the Great Lost Bear in Portland for 22 years, said restaurant workers are “compensated thoroughly, well beyond minimum wage” under the current system and he worries that many might leave their jobs if the proposal to eliminate the tip credit passes, because it may actually lead to lower wages for restaurant workers.
Howard said he can earn $35 or $40 an hour under the current system and the minimum provided by the tip credit gives him a built-in income floor if things are slow.
Howard also believes the issue is misleading because people might think that getting rid of the tip credit and paying workers the minimum wage will be giving them a raise.
“Who doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage for the average person?” he said, but with the tipped minimum “we make well above the minimum wage.”
Bruno Napolitano, a bartender at his uncle’s restaurant, Bruno’s, said at Tuesday’s event that the proposal before Portland voters seems drastic. He said restaurants that want to pay their employees a higher minimum wage already have the option to do so.
“Forcing that on an industry that’s still bouncing back from COVID does not seem fair to the workers who we know would have a substantial pay cut, the owners who are working to try and make things work in this industry and the customers,” Napolitano said. “They shouldn’t have to pay overpriced fees for meals. They shouldn’t have to pay higher prices than they do now. Things are already hard.”
‘CATACLYSMIC AND IRREVERSIBLE DISASTER’
David Turin, owner of David’s Restaurant, said the referendum would be a “cataclysmic and irreversible disaster” for restaurants like his, resulting in closures and the loss of jobs. Turin said full-time servers at his restaurant earn over $70,000 per year. If the proposal passes, he said his payroll for a staff of 10 servers and bartenders will increase by just under $200,000 annually.
“My restaurant cannot survive that increase,” Turin said. “David’s and many restaurants like mine will face the option of becoming self-serve dining halls or closing all together. The fabric of our vibrant dining scene in Portland will be destroyed.”
Some of those at Tuesday’s event said they aren’t opposed to an increase to the minimum wage, but they don’t agree with eliminating the tipped credit. Others said they think the city’s referendum process needs to be revised and that the current threshold of 1,500 signatures needed to get a proposal on the ballot is too low.
“We need to have a referendum to change the referendum policy in Portland,” said Sarah Bartlett, a server at Fore Street Restaurant, who also opposes the proposal and worries it will lead to a reduction in her wages.
Bartlett, who lives in Yarmouth, said she is frustrated that she won’t be able to vote in the election and that according to city code, the City Council cannot amend an ordinance approved by referendum vote for five years, though the council can propose changes through an additional referendum.
“The fact we can’t touch it for five years – it’s going to devastate the restaurant industry,” Bartlett said.
Read More: Portland restaurant workers rally to oppose proposal eliminating tip credit