For Portland servers and bartenders, our income security is on the ballot this fall. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Six years ago, a statewide minimum-wage ballot initiative increased the minimum wage to $12 per hour, but simultaneously eliminated the separate minimum wage for tipped employees.

In 2017, I came together with thousands of tipped workers from around the state to successfully lobby the legislature to reinstate this wage. Democrats and Republicans joined together, listening to tipped workers who warned of the dire consequences for our incomes and our industry.

Five years later, the tipped wage is under threat again with a citywide ballot initiative that would increase the minimum wage to $18 in Maine’s biggest city, but would also eliminate the tipped-wage system, which allows Portland workers like me to maximize our incomes.

A quick primer for readers who are new to the debate: State and city law allows full-service restaurants to pay a lower base to servers and bartenders, set at 50 percent of the prevailing wage. We are legally guaranteed to earn, at least, the minimum wage with our tips included. Most of us earn far more.

This isn’t limited to fine dining: In my decade of experience working at a modestly priced restaurant in the Old Port, I’ve averaged $40 an hour with tips.


If the tipped wage is eliminated, there is a cascade of consequences – as evidenced by the seven states that have eliminated it.

For tipped workers, as our base wage goes up, our tips go down. Analysis by both the Census Bureau and Cornell University has shown that workers in states with a higher tipped wage received lower tips. There are several reasons this might be: Customers may not tip as well if they know we are making a much higher wage, or lower levels of service in those states may discourage customers’ generosity. In either case, we workers wind up with less money in our pockets.

Another consequence: Many businesses will be forced to change their business models to counter service, eliminating the need for half the staff. A recent study from the University of California at Irvine, based on the past two decades of labor market data, found that each $1 increase in our base wage causes a 6 percent decrease in employment.

Ultimately, many restaurants will be forced to close because of soaring labor costs. Customers will only pay so much for a beer and burger and, in the current inflationary environment, restaurants can’t raise prices further.

This change, which servers and bartenders are not asking for, will ultimately take the service out of full-service restaurants. Servers and bartenders take great pride in our jobs. We look forward to being the memory makers for so many people, be it for a special occasion or on a casual lunch date. With many of us already taken out of the workforce because of closures and increased automation, diners should prepare to make friends with the iPads that will occupy tables in our place.

Tipped income provides a great living for so many workers in our city. It allows us to earn a living wage without a college degree. We workers did not sponsor this ballot measure, and most workers do not support it. Voters should respect those who are doing the work in my industry. You may support an $18-per-hour minimum wage, but that’s not what this ballot measure is about. Please vote no on this attack on my industry – and my livelihood.

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