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Maine’s grassroots restaurant group takes tip credit fight to national stage

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In 2016, Maine voters approved Question 4, a measure that incrementally increases Maine’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 before indexing future wage increases with inflation. However, few voters knew at the time what was buried inside the referendum; the elimination of Maine’s tip credit.

The tip credit gives restaurants, which have high expenses and turn minimal profit, the flexibility they need to stay in business. Restaurants pay tipped workers a lower base wage with the expectation that, with tips, a worker’s wages will equate to or surpass the minimum wage. If a worker’s hourly wage does not equal the minimum wage with tips included, the restaurant must make up the difference, ensuring that all restaurant workers receive at least the minimum wage.

In response to Question 4, a grassroots coalition comprised of thousands of Maine restaurant workers and owners, the Restaurant Workers of Maine, formed to reinstate Maine’s tip credit and to fend off the big labor interests that threatened their livelihoods.

In April of 2017, hundreds of members of the Restaurant Workers of Maine packed the Burton M. Cross Building in Augusta for a public hearing that lasted 15 hours, with the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee voting 11-2 in favor of LD 673, the bill that would eventually be signed into law to reinstate the tip credit.

While the Restaurant Workers of Maine succeeded in their fight at the state level, the victory was somewhat of an outlier. Groups like the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), co-founded by Saru Jayaraman, have successfully enacted and continue to advocate for “OneFairWage” policies and the elimination of the tip credit. To do so, Jayaraman and her co-conspirators have pushed the narrative that sexual harassment runs rampant throughout the food service industry and can only be eliminated by stamping out the tip credit and increasing the minimum wage.

Now, members of the Restaurant Workers of Maine have launched a national coalition called the Restaurant Workers of America in effort to establish or reinstate the tip credit in states where the ROC seeks to gain a foothold. The group’s Board of Directors includes Joshua Chaisson, a server from Portland, Wendyll Caisse, owner of Buck’s Naked BBQ in Freeport and Windham, and Carrie Smith, a server and bartender in Bangor. The group has also added industry professionals from Seattle, Minneapolis, and Washington D.C.

“After our legislative win to reinstate the tip credit in Maine, several of us got together and reached out to our colleagues in Minnesota, Washington state, Washington D.C., and Michigan,” Chaisson said. “We realized there is a need for a national voice to make the case for a tip credit, and that’s what we intend to do. We will advocate for a tip credit in states without one and preserve it where it exists.”

Maine’s restaurant workers fought hard to reinstate the tip credit because, without it, they would have lost wages. Paying servers $12 an hour would result in higher menu prices or a move towards automated service, similar to what is seen at McDonalds, Applebees and other chain restaurants. Both “solutions” to a minimum wage increase would turn away longtime patrons, eliminate jobs or ruin the professions that so many restaurant workers love.

“We look at our work as a commission-based business,” Smith said, meaning that servers who provide better service will receive larger tips. For Smith and many other restaurant workers, serving is one of the last professions where the wages you earn reflect your work ethic. When you work hard, you’re compensated accordingly, Smith says.

Nationally, the “OneFairWage” movement has gained steam. Hollywood stars are chiming in on the issue by using the supposed exploitation of women to help sell the ROC’s policy agenda. In late October, actress Jane Fonda showed her support for the ROC’s OneFairWage initiative by calling for changes to the minimum wage and tip credit to help women within the food service industry.

“When you feed your family off your tips, and that’s all you have, then yes you wear that short skirt, you’ll wear that low-cut blouse and you won’t say anything when they grope you, because you can’t,” Fonda said during a media charade.

Certainly, Fonda’s comments overlook the freedom workers in any industry have when they are upset with their working conditions; they may leave at any time they choose and seek employment elsewhere.

“Are Hollywood actresses tipped?” Smith asked rhetorically. “I wish real servers could represent our industry.”

Jayaraman recently joined actress Amy Poehler at the Golden Globe awards on Jan. 7 to push the OneFairWage agenda and her misguided rhetoric to a national audience.

“Of course some [sexual harassment] exists in the restaurant industry, just like any other industry – like Hollywood, where [Jayaraman] attended the Golden Globes,” Chaisson said. “Ending tipping or paying servers the highest minimum wage will do nothing to end sexual harassment. Eliminating tipping will hurt the exact people [Jayaraman] claims she wants to help.”

Jayaraman frequently asserts that, in 43 states, restaurant owners “get away” with not paying their workers the minimum wage. This notion is completely false. If a worker does not achieve the hourly minimum wage with tips, the restaurant is still responsible for paying their tipped worker the minimum wage.

In other words, zero states allow their restaurant workers to be paid below the minimum wage. The tip credit ensures that all tipped workers receive the minimum wage.

While their work has only just begun, there is real optimism within Maine’s food service industry that the Restaurant Workers of America can become the leading national advocate for the tip credit. To compete with Jayaraman, the ROC and other groups seeking to unionize food service workers, the Restaurant Workers of America will have to work around the clock, and likely without local or national media spotlights.

However, thanks to hardworking members of Maine’s food service industry, real restaurant workers across the country finally have a dog in the fight.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is a policy analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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