PORTLAND — Advocates say waiters, waitresses and other restaurant workers who depend on tips deserve higher pay.
Employees and their supporters rallied Feb. 13 at the University of Southern Maine as part of a nationwide effort to bring attention to the federal tipping minimum wage of $2.13 an hour.
But a representative of the Maine Restaurant Association said tipped workers make full minimum wage, and that their pay is dependent on their ability.
“Tipped workers can never make less than minimum wage,” said Dick Grotton, president and CEO of the MRA.
That is because if tipped workers do not make the equivalent of minimum wage, their employer is required to pay them the difference for that night by federal law.
Furthermore, said Grotton, waiters and waitresses are basically commissioned sales people.
“If you can’t please your customers, then this isn’t the job for you,” he said, adding that slow sales affect everyone in the restaurant business, including owners, kitchen staff and suppliers.
The federally mandated wage has been the same since 1991, although some states have higher minimums. Tipped workers in Maine receive a minimum of $3.63 per hour, or 50 percent of the standard minimum wage.
Tracy Allen, a co-founder the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Maine, said an estimated 13 million U.S. workers are employed in the restaurant industry.
“This is the fastest growing sector in the country,” Allen said.
Kristalyn Phipps, a Portland waitress, said at the rally that as the economy has fallen into recession and Americans are dining out less frequently, servers are relying more on their hourly wages.
“We’ve seen a drastic drop in business,” she said. “Hours go by with out a customer.”
Phipps also said that customers who do dine out are leaving smaller tips, too.
Jenna Vendil of the Southern Maine Worker’s Center said the restaurant industry is one that fairs well in hard economic times. But, she said, the price of essentials has skyrocketed.
“The value of minimum wage has been eroded by inflation,” she said.
Grotton also took issue with the wage advocates saying they have not had a raise in 18 years. He said waiters and waitresses get raises every time menu prices go up.
“Plus, you have customers tipping 20 percent now as a norm, not 7 or 8 percent like it was,” he said.
Allen said restaurant workers and advocates are urging Congress to raise the tipping minimum wage to 60 percent of the federal overall minimum wage, which is currently $6.55, but is scheduled to go up to $7.25 in July.
At that hourly rate, the federal tipping minimum wage would rise to $4.35 an hour.