Capitol Notebook: Fighting over the check

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The carving knives are out in a bitter battle between restaurant owners and servers who are lined up against activists from the Maine People’s Alliance and some other servers over the practice of tipping.

The fight is over whether increasing servers’ minimum wage will slice their income if people tip less, since servers routinely take home more than the minimum wage in tips.

The tipping fight is front and center at the Legislature, and has drawn lengthy Facebook commentary loaded with misinformation and personal attacks.

It stems from the last year’s successful referendum vote that raised the general minimum wage over time. It also increased servers’ wages, so that by 2024 they would get the same minimum wage as other workers.

At the same time, the so-called “tip credit” would end. That tip-credit system (incorrectly called a sub-minimum wage) now enables restaurants to pay servers at half the regular minimum wage, as long as the rest is made up in tips. Servers are still guaranteed the basic minimum wage.

The two bills to restore the tip credit were the subject of a hearing last week before the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. One is introduced by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who said many servers want the tip credit restored. Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, the Democratic minority leader, has proposed a commission to study the issue.

But the majority of restaurant owners and servers who jammed the State Office Building in Augusta urged lawmakers to keep the tip credit.

In a hearing that stretched beyond midnight, servers argued that tips brought solid restaurant jobs with flexible hours and high income. Other servers, many organized by MPA, wanted the protection of the increased minimum wage, and argued that relying on tips makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment.

One tense moment came when Saru Jaramayan, a California-based activist for food service workers, testified in favor of raising the minimum wage for servers.

A Yale Law school graduate and subject of glowing profiles in The New York Times, Jaramayan was brought in by MPA to support the increased the minimum wage for servers, and was mocked by some Republicans for being from California. Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, demanded to know what her salary was, which she was forced to answer.

Jaramayan, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunity Center in Berkeley, is an architect of the no-tipping movement, and the author of a 2015 New York Times op-ed called “Why tipping is wrong,” where she analyzed tipping in light of its history in the post-Civil War era, when it was used to avoid paying former slaves. She also argued it leads to sexual harassment.

A Times article admired Jaramayan’s work on behalf of restaurant workers, also noting “her tactics can be off-putting to management and owners. After all, it is not good for business to have protesters outside fine dining establishments wearing chef’s aprons and holding signs that read ‘Hungry for Justice.’”

But unlike New York, the culture of tipping is deeply ingrained in Maine, which is filled with small restaurants where the tip credit keeps costs down, and gives customers some measure of control over how they compensate servers. Restaurant owners say they have to raise their prices if wages are forced up, and they won’t be able to raise wages for the for kitchen staff, who generally earn less than servers.

That problem was cited by Carrie Smith of Bangor, who urged lawmakers to keep the tip credit.

“All of the kitchen staff that I work with and care about did not receive their annual raise due to all tipped employees getting a dollar an hour raise that they did not ask for,” Smith said.

One good rule of life is that you don’t mess with someone’s income. The servers who testified last week feel that their income is threatened, just as we head into Maine’s busiest tourist season, when restaurants are desperately searching for help.

If the tip credit is not restored, it could be a lose-lose-lose for restaurants, servers, and diners, who could face higher prices and stop eating out.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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