Last week, Maine’s Governor Paul LePage signed into law a bill lowering the minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers. The bill blatantly ignored the will of Maine voters – who voted last November to raise the minimum wage to $9 this year, and $12 by 2020—and by 2024, all workers, including tipped workers, would have been entitled to a $12 minimum wage. Specifically, for tipped workers, the referendum would have also eventually eliminated the tip credit – the practice of paying tipped workers a lower minimum wage when they make up the difference in tips – by raising the tipped minimum wage from $3.75 to $12 by 2024. The bill that Governor LePage signed reverses this part of the referendum, and reinstates the tip credit, which means that that tipped workers will once again be entitled to a minimum hourly wage that is only half the minimum wage for other Maine workers.
Opponents of the referendum argued that it would lead to less tips and fewer hours, despite evidence that similar wage hikes in other cities have raised wages without costing jobs. Raising the tipped minimum wage is also an issue of gender justice. In equal treatment states – that is, states where tipped workers are entitled to the same minimum wage as everyone else–, the wage gap for women in tipped occupations is 33 percent smaller, and the poverty rate for women in tipped occupations is a full 27 percent lower than in states with a tipped minimum wage at the federal level of $2.13 an hour. Women, after all, make up about two-thirds of workers in tipped occupations. Furthermore, when women have to rely on tips to get to a minimally adequate wage, they are at increased risk of sexual harassment, as the bulk of their pay turns on the whims of customers. Finally, the promise that their employers will pay the difference when their tips add up to the minimum often doesn’t materialize, leaving workers vulnerable to wage theft and sub-minimum wages.
The data shows that the referendum would have resulted in a raise for women in Maine, but apparently Maine’s servers — an industry that is 79% women — will have to wait for fair wages. As a Mainer who was born and raised in Portland, and who has friends in Maine who still work in food service, it’s disappointing to see that the legislature voted to take a step back by overturning the people’s vote.
In the meantime, working people in Maine will keep fighting for a just wage system for all, where servers can rely on a reliable living wage to support themselves and their families.