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Restaurant workers lobby for better pay, benefits

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Restaurant workers lobby for better pay, benefits

PORTLAND — As local restaurants gear up for 10 days of special promotions designed to lure diners out of late-winter hibernation, advocates for servers and kitchen workers say restaurant working conditions must be improved.

According to a study released by the Maine Restaurant Industry Coalition earlier this month, a majority of the 525 restaurant workers surveyed in Maine said they go to work sick and do not have employer-provided health insurance.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center of Maine, a Portland-based group that is part of a national organization that advocates for restaurant workers, led the study and is lobbying in Augusta for a law that would require all employers to provide paid sick time.

ROC is also lobbying for an increase in the minimum wage for tipped employees. Currently, the minimum wage for waitstaff is $3.63 per hour. The state minimum for other hourly employees is $7.50.

The study found that 89 percent of restaurant workers do not get compensated for sick days, and almost 90 percent do not receive health insurance through their employers.

In addition to paid sick time and pay increases, the study called "Behind the Kitchen Door: Low Road Jobs, High Road Opportunities in Maine's Growing Restaurant Industry" calls for enforcement of labor, employment, health and safety standards in restaurants, in exchange for incentives for owners, such as tax breaks.

The study also recommends allowing workers to unionize, and says unionization "should be publicized as significant benefits to workers and employers."

Genet Gebrewahd, a coordinator for Maine ROC, said that since the study was released Feb. 9, the group has had no feedback or comments from restaurant workers or owners.

"A big part, for us, is the importance of recognizing workers in the industry," Gebrewahd said. She said she hopes the study will help to engage the public and officials in discussing the reality of restaurant work.

Gebrewahd said the 525 workers surveyed represented a nearly even mix of front-of-the-house and kitchen workers, mostly from Portland restaurants.

Only 3 percent of those surveyed said they experienced minimum wage violations, while about 60 percent reported making between $8.46 and $16.99 per hour, which the study classified as a low wage.

ROC is fairly new to Portland, but has been active in New York and Chicago. Critics say its intent is to unionize workers.

The local chapter recently helped a half dozen current and former workers of The Front Room restaurant on Munjoy Hill file a federal lawsuit against owner Harding Smith, accusing him of violating labor laws and owing $160,000 in wages. The plaintiffs and their supporters have also staged pickets outside the Congress Street restaurant.

Smith, who owns two other restaurants in Portland, is one of the few restaurant owners who offers all his employees health and dental insurance. He has denied violating labor laws.

Gebrewhad said ROC has no events or demonstrations planned during Maine Restaurant Week, March 1-10. Steve Emmons, another Maine ROC member, said the group is focused on lobbying in Augusta.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net