AUGUSTA, Maine — Eight Democrats in the Maine Legislature are supporting proposals to restore the tipped minimum wage for servers phased out by a 2016 minimum wage referendum, drawing ire from progressives who advocated for it.
They may hold the critical votes needed in a closely divided Legislature to unravel the portion of the new law affecting tipped workers. Backed by many in Maine’s restaurant industry, virtually all Republicans — including Gov. Paul LePage — favor allowing a lower minimum wage for tipped workers.
But on Monday, the Maine People’s Alliance, which worked to pass the question, shone a spotlight on that group of Democrats, made up of Sens. Bill Diamond of Windham and James Dill of Old Town and Reps. Martin Grohman of Biddeford, Louis Luchini of Ellsworth, Brian Hubbell of Bar Harbor, Robert Alley of Beals, Anne-Marie Mastraccio of Sanford and Catherine Nadeau of Winslow.
After they were publicly named as co-sponsors of at least one of two Republican bills to restore the “tip credit,” the alliance’s online news arm posted an article with the lawmakers’ contact information quoting an employee who managed the campaign as saying the move would “betray the voters” and is “absolutely unacceptable.”
But two of the targeted Democrats said Tuesday that they’ve heard from restaurant owners and servers in their districts who say their bottom lines and wages have gone or will go down under the new system.
Grohman said he’s a dues-paying member of the Maine People’s Alliance and called their approach “unfortunate.”
“The Democratic Party is not anti-business, and I don’t want us to be perceived that way and we shouldn’t be perceived that way,” he said.
Democrats are united on the main piece of the law passed by voters in November, which raised Maine’s regular hourly minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 in 2017 and put it on track to reach $12 by 2020.
The change for tipped workers is more divisive. The referendum raised that wage from $3.75 to $5 in 2017. It’ll rise by $1 each year to reach the regular minimum no sooner than 2024.
The Maine People’s Alliance and its allies have argued that the tip credit depresses wages for most in the restaurant industry, often citing federal data estimating that Maine servers made a median hourly wage of just over $9 in 2016.
The Maine Restaurant Association, a trade group, called that the most onerous piece of the package. Its main lobbyist, Greg Dugal, said average wages are likely higher than the federal figure because of undercounting.
But so far, evidence on the new law’s impact is anecdotal since it went into effect in January. The Maine People’s Alliance has put forward servers who support the tip change, while some servers have organized under the Restaurant Workers of Maine to oppose it.
Rochelle Carlson, a server at The Green Tea Restaurant in Bangor who reached out unprompted to the Bangor Daily News on Monday, said she has seen her normal wage of between $15 and $17 per hour drop from $2 to $4 since the new minimum wage law took effect, citing lower tips.
“I would like to see a minimum wage increase for everybody, but I think there’s certain professions where it doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Diamond, whose district includes most of the area around tourist-heavy Sebago Lake, said he voted for the law with reservations about the tip credit changes but has heard from similar servers in his area who “had no other agenda other than they’re genuinely worried” about it.
“Listening to the servers, I mean, they’re genuinely worried about their ability to make a livelihood here based on their education, based on their background,” he said. “I’m sincerely touched by their concern and their worries.”
All of this doesn’t sit well with progressives. Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, blamed most dissent around the law on “the restaurant industry” and hit Diamond by name, noting his background as a former secretary of state.
“I am surprised that he would take a position to undermine the will of the voters,” she said.
But if this group of Democrats sticks together, they could pass legislation that restores the tip credit. The House of Representatives leans Democratic, but they have only six more members than Republicans, who control the Senate. That would get a bill to LePage.
Grohman predicted that it would pass, while House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who hasn’t taken a position on the tip credit, said it’s too early to count votes. She said Democrats “care deeply about raising the minimum wage” and that hasn’t changed, but she also noted that the effects of the tip changes could differ by region.
“These six legislators specifically are responding directly to their constituents,” Gideon said, “and that’s what we do here.”