Maine Legislature Could Send Restaurant Tipping Measure Back to the Prep Line

A waitress pours coffee for patrons at Friendly's restaurant in Brunswick, Maine, on Oct. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has no problem telling voters when he feels they have made a mistake.

The Sun Journal reported LePage told Z105.5’s “Breakfast Club” show that he’s so incensed by a new law that is intended to phase out tips, while increasing the minimum wage, for restaurant servers that he’s not tipping as much to make his case.

“I cut the tip in half, and then I put the comment, ‘Call your legislator,’ on my charge card” receipt, LePage said. “If I know who the legislator is, I’ll put their name down.”

Maine voters approved a November 2016 ballot proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. The new law includes the hotly debated “Question 4,” a provision that impacts restaurant workers directly.

Question 4 was designed to make restaurant servers less dependent on tips from their customers. Currently, Maine restaurant owners can pay employees who get tips as little as 50 percent of the minimum wage, under the assumption tips make up the difference.

But under the new law, as the minimum wage is gradually increased, restaurant servers and others who receive tips will also see their mandated percentage of the minimum wage rise up to 100 percent.

So, at least in theory, they will be less reliant on tips to earn a living.

Question 4 was controversial before the election in November, and it was still being debated in April.

Lawmakers have offered two different bills that would revoke the voters’ Question 4 decision. A third proposal would set up a study committee to see if a change should be made.

WGME reported those three pieces of legislation drew hundreds of restaurant owners and employees to an April 4 hearing before the state legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

Mike Tipping (no pun intended, that’s really his name), the communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance, told the Portland Press Herald the voters’ will should be done.

“It’s obviously something that received tremendous support — more than any other initiative in state history,” Tipping said.

But some of the people the new law is supposed to help are speaking out against Question 4.

Heather Fugere, a server, told the committee that she could make the same money in two or three days from tips as in an 80-hour work week at $12 an hour.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Fugere said.

Carrie Smith, a restaurant server, wrote in the Bangor Daily News the only people who favored Question 4 are the people who don’t know anything about the restaurant industry except how to sit down and order a meal.

“I am not stuck. I do not need saving,” Smith wrote in the op-ed. “I am not sexually harassed; my boss would never allow that. Restaurant owners are not greedy monsters putting us in unsafe work environments. I make an excellent living at a job I love.”

The Restaurant Workers of Maine used a Facebook page and Twitter hashtag #savemaineservers to coordinate an online petition drive supporting a return to tips because “it is common knowledge in the restaurant industry that service staff earn, with tips, way more than the minimum wage.”

More than 5,200 people have “liked” the RWM’s Facebook page.

“If we’re in this many numbers to say that we don’t want a raise, it should make you stop and think,” Jason Buckwalter, founder of the Restaurant Workers of Maine, told WABI-TV.

However, the RWM also made the point on its Facebook page that the minimum wage portion of the ballot proposition, which was approved by voters, should go into effect.

On the other side of the debate are people like Kathryn Harnish, a restaurant owner, who supported Question 4 as part of the minimum wage proposal.

“With change, there’s always some uncertainty. I think that what the evidence bears in other states where they pay a full wage to their servers is that it’s not something to be afraid of,” Harnish told WABI.

“You still have the benefits of the custom of tipping and you still get rewarded for outstanding service, which we definitely want to continue for our staff, but you also have the security at the same time,” she added.

The Bangor Daily News editorialized that Gov. LePage’s practice of cutting restaurant tips to persuade servers to rebel against the phase-out tips only proves the point of what is wrong with an age-old practice that, in effect, leaves it up to diners to pay the people serving their meals.

“Some of whom, like the governor, will withhold tip money for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the service they received. Rather than this arbitrary system, wait staff should earn a predictable, fair wage,” the Bangor Daily News wrote.

The newspaper also pointed out that no matter what side of the debate its readers, and Gov. LePage, fall on, “That’s what Mainers voted for last fall.”