Coalition of Maine lawmakers could protect tipped wage credit

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WINDHAM — Eight Democratic state lawmakers may tip the scales by supporting legislation that would roll back part, but not all, of the November 2016 referendum that raised the state minimum wage.

The legislators, including a state senator from Windham, have signed on to Republican efforts that would preserve the tipped wage credit, which allows service industry employers to count tips as part of their employees’ wages. The credit is now slated to be phased out over several years.

Two separate Republican bills that would preserve the tipped wage credit have gained some Democratic support. Both deal specifically with the tipped wage provisions in the November referendum, and do not affect the overall increase in the state minimum hourly wage from $7.50 to $9 that will be increased by $1 each year until reaching $12 in 2020.

One of the Democrats supporting the effort to preserve the tipped wage credit, Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said he has heard concerns from workers in his district who rely on tips to make a living.

“I supported the minimum-wage increase, spoke about it, but at the same time I spoke about my concerns for the food servers, for the wait staff, who have been talking to me for months about this,” Diamond said. “We’re a high-tourist area, we have a lot of servers who make a living – and many of them are women, single parents. I think their voice needs to be heard on this, and it may or may not have been in the voters’ minds when they voted on this. … And they’ve convinced me that they are certain that they will have a significant loss of income if this isn’t changed.”

Caite Robinson tends bar at Pat’s Pizza a few minutes north of Diamond’s office on Route 302. Robinson, of Sebago, made it clear that she strongly supports maintaining the tipped wage credit.

“(Losing) it would kill us,” Robinson said. “I would quit.”

She explained that if her employer had to pay staff more in wages rather than relying on tips, drink prices could rise and ultimately hurt the business – including the workers. Robinson believes that most, if not all, of her coworkers agree with her.

However, Esther Pew, a waitress at the bowling venue Spare Time Entertainment in Portland, sees it differently.

“Personally, I’m really disappointed in the Democrats that are coming out against the will of the voters,” said Pew, who is also a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine and an intern at the Maine People’s Alliance.

“Everybody still tips … I haven’t seen my tips change,” Pew said about her earnings in the time since the referendum was enacted.

The Maine People’s Alliance helped spearhead the passage of Question 4 and is pushing back against Diamond and the seven other Democrats. The alliance’s media project, the Maine Beacon, published a post on Feb. 28 criticizing them for supporting the Republican efforts “to roll back part of the minimum wage increase just passed by statewide referendum.”

“I’m not in agreement with any legislator in any party who thinks it’s appropriate to revisit a vote just approved by the people,” agreed Eliza Townsend, Executive Director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, which actively supported the passage of Question 4.

The tipped wage credit allows certain businesses to pay wait staff, bartenders, and parking attendants a subminimal wage that is supposed to be offset by tips. If a worker does not get enough in tips to cover the difference between the tipped minimum wage and the regular minimum wage, the employer must cover the difference.

Question 4 raised Maine’s tipped wage from $3.75 an hour to $5 starting in January. Eventually it will reach $12 an hour and disappear.

It’s that eventual sunset provision that has the Restaurant Workers of Maine worried. The groups says it has thousands of members – restaurant workers, managers and owners – who support the minimum wage increase, but believe the tipped wage credit is vital to their industry.

One of the group’s members, Wendyll Caisse, owner of Buck’s Naked BBQ in Freeport and Windham, said keeping the tipped credit makes sense for employers and employees, and that removing it would be “non-sustainable” because it would force businesses to consider other adjustments, such as increased automation and staff reductions.

“I have no problem with (the minimum wage increase),” Caisse said. “It’s the tip credit that’s the tricky math.”

Caisse recently wrote a letter to the eight Democratic lawmakers thanking them for their support of the tipped wage credit.

The outlook of the two tipped credit bills in the legislature with Democratic support is unclear.

The bill that Diamond has signed on to was introduced by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and has six Democratic cosponsors. Diamond sees decent odds for the bill to pass in the Senate, although he’s unsure of its outlook in the House.

“On the Senate side, where the Republicans control the Senate, I think there’s probably a pretty good chance of it passing,” he said.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Delaney Fone, a bartender at Buck’s Naked BBQ in Freeport, supports the tipped wage credit. “If they took that away, I don’t know what I’d do,” she said.