This article was originally published in the Sun Journal.
Nearly two years ago I decided to run for office with a goal of advancing policies that will help boost Maine’s rural economy, specifically in our corner of western Maine. Coincidentally, the same election that brought me to the state Senate also saw the narrow passage of a three-prong minimum wage referendum that we are still grappling with in Augusta today.
One of our most significant accomplishments in the past session was the reinstatement of the tip credit, which would have been phased out under Question 4, the minimum-wage referendum. The 12-hour long public hearing for the tip credit bill was the longest hearing in recent memory, with literally hundreds of servers and waitstaff taking time out of their busy schedules to travel to Augusta to fight for their livelihood.
I am proud that we were able to gain bipartisan support on this important issue and honor the wishes of the service industry.
The rest of the minimum-wage hike was left in place. Under this new law, employers have had to raise the minimum wage twice — once by $1.50 in 2017 and again by $1 on January 1 of this year — and they will have to continue to raise wages by $1 each year until the minimum wage reaches $12, and again every year after that with indexing.
Now that we are on Year 2, employers are grappling with keeping their costs to consumers down while the cost of doing business is soaring. I have heard from a number of constituents on this issue as it has been a significant challenge and has already caused some businesses in our corner of the state to close their doors.
This session, legislators have an opportunity to consider further the impact of our wage structure through the introduction of LD 1757, “An Act To Protect Maine’s Economy by Slowing the Rate at Which the State’s Minimum Wage Will Increase and Establishing a Training and Youth Wage.”
The public hearing on this bill, which took place Jan. 24, had an impressive turnout with nearly 100 people, primarily business owners, traveling to Augusta to urge lawmakers to intervene. A few of them operate businesses within our community — and they are all struggling to keep up with payroll costs.
Sandra Fickett, the owner of Tilton’s Market in Buckfield was one of them. Tilton’s has been a fixture in Buckfield since 1939 and the new minimum-wage law is threatening their viability and harming the very employees it was meant to help. According to Fickett, “Most of the wage increases have NOT gone to my experienced staff, who have families to support … In the past two years I have had to increase wages for teenagers and first-time adult hires who have never held a job before and require extensive training. Instead of being able to pay the teen $8 and the experienced employee $12, they are both now making $10.”
She also talked about how she employs an adult with significant cognitive limitations as a service to her community, but she has had to significantly reduce his hours and won’t be able to afford to hire others in his situation due to the high minimum wage and his extremely limited abilities.
The Labor Committee also heard from the Town Manager of Mexico, the owner of Towle’s Store and Towle’s Hardware & Lumber Company in Dixfield and the owner/operator of the now shuttered Front Porch Cafe in Dixfield, who said that “the minimum-wage hike was the last nail in our coffin.”
During the hearing, small businesses from all around the state painted a bleak picture as they spoke about how they are coping with the inflation by reducing the number of hours they are open for business, reducing staff hours and laying people off.
Of greatest concern is that our current wage structure squeezes out those who are in most need of entry level experience — our youth. The first to lose out are the disadvantaged Maine youth who are in desperate need of the extra adult support, mentoring and real-life learning opportunities that are provided through employment. These young people are now unlikely to get the help that could turn their lives down a more viable path. This is an unintended consequence of Question 4.
I sincerely hope we can work together to find solutions that will address this need and will also consider the economic dynamic of rural Maine.