When servers at Portland restaurant Five Fifty-Five say they feel the burn, they’re not talking about an accident in the kitchen or a certain high-profile senator from Vermont.

They are talking about fuming over their boss’ op-ed in the March 22 Portland Press Herald opposing the November ballot question on raising the minimum wage for tipped workers.

In a counter piece that appeared Tuesday, former Five Fifty-Five server Heather McIntosh said she and four other servers are leaving their jobs in protest over their employers’ stance on the issue – and a number of other concerns. At a rally in favor of the ballot initiative held at Vena’s Fizz House on Tuesday morning, McIntosh clarified that she had already left the restaurant – her last day was Sunday – another server had put in a two-week notice, and the others were “in process.” None of the other servers, she said, wanted their names to be made public.

“They’re looking for other jobs right now, and they really fear that if they put their names in an article that there would be a backlash, especially from our employer,” McIntosh said.

The debate over the tipped minimum wage has restaurant workers and their employers – in some restaurants, anyway – talking about more than plating sauces and table turnover, especially when they are at odds with one another. The initiative would gradually increase the minimum wage paid to tip earners from $3.75 to $5 per hour in 2017, then add a dollar a year until tipped employees make the same minimum wage as other workers. That means by 2024, they would be earning $12 an hour.

At the rally Tuesday sponsored by the Maine People’s Alliance, McIntosh said the proposal had been discussed in weekly staff meetings at Five Fifty-Five, but employees felt uncomfortable speaking their minds in front of Michelle Corry, who is on the board of the Maine Restaurant Association. She said they talked about the issue outside of work and in a break room “when we knew we were being overheard. I would say the majority of us were really upset because so much of what she said (in her op-ed article) was misinformation.”

McIntosh also accused Corry of trying to tell her staff how to vote, and threatening that if the initiative passes, she’ll have to shut down the restaurant.

Steve and Michelle Corry, the husband-and-wife owners of Five Fifty-Five, were in Paris on Tuesday, but in an email Michelle Corry said the loss of five employees at the restaurant was “a bit of an exaggeration” on McIntosh’s part. She said McIntosh has been the only one to quit and she was “pretty shocked” by her opinion piece.

“I believe, strongly, that my current employees are very happy,” she wrote. “I have had several healthy and productive discussions with many of the servers on my staff regarding this issue. I have always felt it is extremely important that my staff understand that I was not forcing any political agenda. The conversations were always about passing along information and education, as it is a very confusing process.”

The Corrys emphasized that they already pay their employees more than minimum wage and are “not anti-minimum wage increase.”

“Most of the restaurants and retailers are behind an increase,” Michelle Corry wrote. “We just want to make sure it is one that makes sense, therefore we have simply been behind a competing measure.”

The restaurant also offers a 401k program, health insurance and dental, they said, “which is very rare for a restaurant.”

Restaurant employees who spoke at the rally Tuesday described their struggles to make ends meet.

McIntosh, 39, said she only gets by with the help of family members, who provide child care for her 7-year-old son, and $10,000 in annual loans she takes out to pay her bills. She’s $50,000 in debt, she said.

“The working poor is the new normal,” McIntosh said. “That’s unacceptable. I work 60 hours a week, and raise a son by myself. And I’m not afraid of hard work. But I should not have to be $50,000 in debt on top of that because I have to take out loans to pay my rent.”

Ali Monceaux, 30, works as a server at a chain restaurant in Windham that she refused to name. She said her $3.75 per hour minimum wage gets eaten up in taxes before she even gets a paycheck. Asked how much she makes in tips, she replied that the average for tipped workers in Maine is $8.72 an hour.

Monceaux said servers at her restaurant talk among themselves about the issue, sharing their anxieties about making ends meet.

“It’s very anxious and high stress to rely on the gratuity of others to pay your rent,” she said. “I’ve been tipped in phone numbers before, which doesn’t pay any of my bills.”

David Turin, owner of David’s and David’s Opus 10 in Portland, said the managers at his restaurants seem more concerned about the possible impact of the initiative more than the servers.

Turin said he’s been through a whole year’s worth of earnings records for his restaurants, and his servers earned a minimum of $21 an hour and an average of $24 an hour under the current system. He believes their wages will go down if the initiative passes. “If I were a server,” he said, “I would be rallying other servers to get their voice heard.”

Turin doesn’t believe restaurants will necessarily go out of business, but they will have to change their business models. They’ll stop accepting tips, raise prices, and pay everyone a wage. That would be good for dishwashers, but a cut in pay for his servers, he said.

Jay Villani, owner of Sonny’s, Local 188 and Salvage BBQ, agreed that “the culture is in for a big shift to non-tipped houses.” He said he talks about the ballot initiative at weekly staff meetings held every Thursday.

“We definitely talk about it,” he said. “We think it’s very important that everyone’s aware of what’s going on and how it’s going to affect everything in the long term.”

He draws the line, though, at telling his workers how to vote.

“That’s not my place,” he said, laughing. “I think that’s unconstitutional. But people need to be aware of it. It’s a very tricky subject.”

 


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