Heather McIntosh of Old Orchard Beach spoke of her experience as a restaurant worker last year when the business shut down during the pandemic. She was among those speaking as part of a One Fair Wage roundtable discussion in Biddeford a week ago about raising the pay of restaurant workers. Tammy Wells Photo

BIDDEFORD — While some employers pay more, tipped workers in 43 states, including Maine, earn a substantially lower wage, called the subminimum, than other minimum wage workers receive. It has been this way for many years, and now a national organization, a Maine legislator, and workers in the industry say it is time for that to change.

Maine’s subminimum wage is currently $6.08 an hour; the state minimum is $12.15. The rates are scheduled to increase to $6.38 and $12.75, respectively, on Jan. 1, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

An organization called One Fair Wage is working on the national level — where the minimum wages are $2.13 per hour for the subminimum and $7.25 for the minimum — to increase the federal minimum to $15 for all hourly workers, including those who receive tips. As well, One Fair Wage is supporting initiatives in several states, including one sponsored by Democratic State Rep. Michael Sylvester, that would offer employers state support, at least initially, to help them raise wages for restaurant workers and employees at small grocery stores.

Sylvester, House Chair of the Labor and Housing Committee, whose district includes some of the Casco Bay islands and part of mainland Portland, has initiated a bill called the Maine Food Workers Bill of Rights that he hopes will be considered in the state legislative session that begins in January. The bill, which Sylvester said includes tipped restaurant workers, farm workers and those who work at small grocery shores,  calls for a $15 minimum, a figure that One Fair Wage is asking the federal government to adopt.

“Post-COVID, employers need to pay a higher wage,” said Sylvester.  He pointed to a survey that shows wages are up in some areas, and, he said, employers want to pay more but may need help getting there. He likened the effort to one undertaken some years ago to bring teachers’ wages to a certain level.

Rep. Michael Sylvester, whose district includes some of the Casco Bay islands and part of Portland, spoke at a One Fair Wage roundtable in Biddeford a week ago about a bill he is sponsoring that would see the state help support increases in wages for restaurant workers, farm workers and those employed in small grocery stores. Tammy Wells Photo

“Workers want the business to succeed, and employers want workers to succeed,” said Sylvester, adding employers do not want their workers to go elsewhere for more pay.

At a One Fair Wage roundtable last week at Lorne Wine on Main Street in Biddeford, owned by State Rep. Erin Sheehan (D-Biddeford), and her husband Carson James, Sheehan said they are looking to add more staff as they expand the food portion of their business. Currently they have one employee.

“We realized that we needed to offer a more expanded food menu in order to increase on-premise revenues, but could not afford to do so during the slow rebuild this year,” said Sheehan. “Now that people are starting to return to indoor dining, we feel we can risk that expansion, and are hoping to launch the new menu in the spring.”

Businesses like hers will have to look at pricing and other tools to help add new revenue, she said at the roundtable.

“At a certain point, without revenue streams, it gets really difficult,” said Sheehan, “especially for companies with razor thin margins. If you have built your business on the subminimum wage, you really need some assistance in getting to the next level.”

Brianna Campbell and her husband Jon Phillips opened Time and Tide, a Biddeford coffee shop, three years ago and have four employees.

“We always pay above the minimum, but it’s a balance,” said Campbell.

According to a One Fair Trade report, the subminimum wage for tipped workers “forced a workforce that is nearly 70 percent women to live off the vagaries of customer tips, causing economic instability, racial inequity, and sexual harassment.” The February 2021 report stated that a majority of workers in the industry reported tips declined by 50 percent during the pandemic, and that workers could not enforce social distancing and mask wearing, as they were asked to do, on the same customers from whom they received tips.

“A lot of workers left the industry in 2020,” said One Fair Wage President Saru Jayaraman, estimating about one million  departed nationwide.

Some did not leave of their own accord, but because the business they worked for closed down.

Old Orchard Beach resident Heather McIntosh was working two jobs in Portland when the pandemic hit in March 2020, one as a server, when the restaurant where she was working closed.

McIntosh had a day job, but it did not pay enough for her to provide for herself and her 13-year-old son. And then, all of a sudden, her server job — which paid the subminimum wage of $6.08 per hour, plus tips, was gone. She said she was not eligible for unemployment.

“This really brought me to my knees,” said McIntosh, who said she has always worked 60 to 70 hours a week. She was not able to pay her rent, and her out-of-state landlord gave her a 30-day notice. While McIntosh was not evicted, and her circumstances have improved, she calls that luck.

“Someone anonymously sent me a check for rent,” she said. During that lean time, she also relied on local food pantries.

Matters have improved. The restaurant later reopened, and she has a different day job now, one that pays more.

McIntosh said she had worked in the restaurant industry for 25 years. And, she said it has been difficult at times.

There has been increased sexual harassment on the job, she said, and because servers rely on tips, often they are hesitant to step forward.

In addition, if workers are exposed to someone with COVID-19 and must quarantine, there is no paid time off, she noted.

“The question is not when do wages increase but how,” said Jayaraman. She pointed out that in some restaurant venues, people are paid differently, depending on whether they work in the front or the back of the house.

Campbell said she and her husband try to support their employees.

“We know our business won’t succeed if our employees don’t succeed,” she said.

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