A Facebook group calling itself Restaurant Workers of Maine on Tuesday started a petition drive aimed at reinstating the Maine tipped wage credit.
They say the credit, which allows tipped workers to earn half the minimum wage, was eliminated when Mainers approved raising the minimum age in the Nov. 8 referendum.
Question 4 not only raised the minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $12 by 2020, but it also raised the wage for service workers who receive tips from $3.75 an hour to $5 an hour in 2017. By 2024, service industry workers would be paid a minimum hourly wage of $12 under the new law.
The petition, which organizers said had been signed by 300 people, seeks to show lawmakers that there is considerable support for leaving things the way they are, said Erica Jackson, one of the organizers.
“The purpose of this petition is to bring to the attention of our legislators the need for the Tipped Wage Credit to be reinstated after the passing of Question 4 on Nov. 8. We are not asking that the minimum wage portion of the bill be changed, just the tipped credit portion,” the petition states. “It is common knowledge in the restaurant industry that service staff earn, with tips, way more than the minimum wage.”
Jackson, a Scarborough resident who has worked in the restaurant industry for 11 years, said she personally supports raising the minimum wage, but like many people working in the hospitality industry, is worried that it will lead to layoffs if owners are forced to raise menu prices.
Jackson said the tipped wage credit should have been separated from the minimum wage question when it was presented to voters.
“I don’t want to see people lose their jobs,” Jackson said. “This is an issue that the Legislature needs to be talking about.”
But supporters of the minimum wage increase say the petition is a last-ditch attempt by the restaurant industry to disrupt a referendum overwhelmingly supported by Maine voters. Question 4 passed with 55.5 percent of the vote.
“I think it is incredibly unfortunate the restaurant industry is trying to roll back the minimum wage increase and is spreading misinformation about the sub-minimum wage increase,” said Mike Tipping, spokesman for Mainers for Fair Wages and communications director at the Maine People’s Alliance.
In seven states where the tipped wage and the minimum wage are the same, including California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, the restaurant industry is thriving, Tipping said. In Maine, the average wage for a server is $9.06 an hour, tips included, he added.
Business groups have already signaled their intentions to push to get the new minimum wage law modified once the next legislative session gets underway. Among the changes under consideration are eliminating wage increases indexed to inflation; establishing a minimum training wage; and adopting a differential in areas of the state with weak economies where a $12 minimum wage would cause hardship on small businesses.
“I expect there will be a lot of legislative activity around the minimum wage,” said David Clough, Maine director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Tipping doesn’t think a challenge will be successful.
“The people have spoken very clearly about supporting the minimum wage,” he said. “This is one of the few bright spots for economic justice in the country, and I don’t think there is any chance of it rolling back.”
Under the current system, restaurant owners receive a tip credit from Maine that allows owners to pay tipped staff half of the prevailing minimum wage. At DiMillo’s restaurant in Portland, owner Steve DiMillo, who wrote an opinion piece in the Press Herald in July, said the current tipping system works well and that workers there make $25 to $30 an hour.
“Most small restaurants do not even make the margins that I do, so the provision in the referendum that would eliminate this credit would forever change the restaurant industry in Maine and the way I do business,” DiMillo wrote.
Jackson said petition supporters worry that eliminating the tipped wage credit could force customers to stop or decrease the amount they tip wait staff, cause restaurant owners to raise menu prices, and eventually force them to lay off workers.
The petition to reinstate the Maine tipped wage credit started Tuesday on a private Facebook page. Nearly 4,000 people joined the page since the election and about 300 people had signed the petition as of Tuesday evening, according to Jackson, who works as a restaurant kitchen manager and chef. She declined to identify her employer.
Petitioners state that eliminating the tipped wage credit will “increase menu prices, eliminate jobs, and threaten the restaurant industry in Maine.”
Jackson said her group wants state legislators to amend the new minimum wage law, but she said it will take an overwhelming show of public support to convince legislators to take action.
Maine Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said that once the new minimum wage law goes into effect, it could be amended by the Maine Legislature just like any other law.
Flynn said it’s not uncommon for the Legislature to modify a law passed by voter initiative if it contains a technical issue or conflict with other laws. However, she noted that there is often a bias against altering laws passed directly by voters.
“There may be a reluctance to do anything to something passed by initiative,” she said.
Staff writers J. Craig Anderson and Peter McGuire contributed to this report.