Restaurant Workers of Maine group opts against minimum wage increase

Posted Nov. 04, 2016, at 5:52 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 07, 2016, at 1:30 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Taylor Trafton said she will need a second job if Question 4 passes on Election Day.

The 23-year-old server at Paddy Murphy’s earns enough to help out her parents financially and afford a $1,100-per-month lease on an apartment above Verve on Main Street because Trafton doesn’t own a car and minds her spending.

But that will change if, as Question 4 proponents propose, Maine’s minimum wage for tipped workers rises from $3.75 per hour to $5 in 2017 and then by a dollar each year until it reaches $12 by 2024, Trafton said.

“I think our tips will go way down if it passes,” Trafton said Friday. “I would definitely lose out.”

About 35 restaurant owners, bartenders, wait staff and other restaurant workers echoed Trafton’s concerns during a demonstration on Friday morning at West Market Square. Members of Restaurant Workers of Maine said they generally welcomed the idea of raising Maine’s minimum wage but feared that their customers would end up paying for the increase.

The increase, they said, would lead to smaller, family-type venues closing because of the loss of customers. Some restaurant workers would lose their incentive to provide good service, members of the group said.

Bangor waiter Kyle Grey estimates that of the $20 to $40 per hour most restaurant staff make at area establishments, about 90 percent comes from tips.

“Our hourly wage covers our taxes,” said Grey, who works at Blaze. “We are working small, flexible shifts of six or seven hours. A lunch shift might pull in $100.”

“I don’t really get a paycheck. I get tips. That’s how I pay my bills,” said Kris Lovley, a bartender at Blaze.

“Right now I feel like it is fine the way it is. Basically we make our money through tips,” Grey added. “It is at a reasonable rate where we can survive, go to school, save our money and do the things we want to do. If [Question 4] does pass, by the time we will be earning $12 an hour, we won’t be making enough money” because customers won’t be tipping as much.

Some restaurateurs support the thrust of Question 4. When contacted by phone Friday afternoon, Gale White, owner of the Lubec Brewing Co. and Sunrise Cafe, both in Lubec, said referendum opponents were displaying “skewed thinking.”

“If a business could only succeed in paying a pauper’s wage, I would have to rethink that business model,” White said. “The server’s wage is ridiculous. It is so low. Those same people who are earning that wage [and support the lower hourly rate] are the same ones who get sent home the next night when things are slow.”

Establishments in state population centers such as Augusta, Bangor, Bar Harbor and Portland can survive just on tips, he said. But businesses in areas of the state that are more sparsely-populated could use the hourly-rate increase, said White, who pays his restaurants’ staffs at least $10 per hour.

“The people earning those wages here are supporting families. I have two ladies here supporting kids,” White said.

Danielle Erin Rhodes, an actress appearing in “Murder for Two” at the Penobscot Theatre in Bangor, said that good tips are more than money. They are an expression of gratitude for good service and help form something of a bond between servers and their customers, said Rhodes, who occasionally waitresses when she’s not performing.

And given that most people pay their entertainment bills with credit cards or debit cards, not cash, the tips added to those bills still figure into servers’ income-tax returns, Rhodes and Grey said.

Good customers will still tip good servers, White said.

Bangor’s minimum wage will increase on Jan. 1, regardless of whether Question 4 passes. The City Council voted 7-2 in December 2015 to raise it in Bangor to $8.25 per hour. The next year, the wage will increase to $9 per hour. In 2019, it will scale up to $9.75, increasing in years after based on the consumer price index.

The statewide minimum wage is $7.50 per hour. If the statewide referendum passes, Bangor would follow the statewide increase benchmarks.

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Maine Restaurant Association, Maine Innkeepers Association and other business groups have come out in opposition of the Maine People’s Alliance-led minimum wage referendum.

A coalition of more than 500 Maine businesses has expressed support for the wage increase.

The general minimum wage increase should be decoupled from the tipped workers’ wage, Grey said. Trafton agreed.

“I still kind of want to say yes to Question 4,” Trafton said. “A lot of people would benefit.”

“Our system isn’t broke,” Grey said. “So don’t fix it.”

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