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Some Maine Restaurant Workers Say Tips Have Declined After Minimum Wage Hike

Pat Wellenbach
Associated Press
A waitress pours coffee for patrons at Friendly's restaurant in Brunswick, Maine on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011.

For decades, waiters and waitresses in Maine restaurants have relied on etiquette for tips — 15-20 percent, depending on the quality of service and food. But some in the industry say that time-honored practice is now being ignored by many customers, now that Maine has a new minimum wage law.

During the first weeks that followed Maine’s implementation of a higher minimum wage, Amber McIntyre thought her tips seemed a little off, and in the wrong direction. The waitress at Pepino’s Mexican Restaurant on Park Street in Bangor says she speculated why until she heard from one of her customers.

“I had one table in particular a couple of weeks ago who left me $5 on $65 and said to each other, ‘Why are you tipping her? She’s making $12 an hour, now,’” she says.

That, of course, is not true. The new minimum wage law did bump up McIntyre’s wage from $3.50 to $5 an hour. For tipped workers, that wage rises by $1 an hour every year, until it hits $12.

McIntyre harbors serious doubts over whether she’ll be able to survive that long as a waitress if her tips continue to decline. She’s hoping lawmakers in Augusta can make changes to the citizen initiative approved by voters last fall that will put her tips back on track.

“I do believe that any person who works full time deserves proper food and housing,” she says. “I’m 100 percent in favor of raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour. I do not believe that servers should have been included in that.”

McIntyre and others would like tipped workers exempted from the law and restored to the status quo tipping system. She’s one of nearly 4,000 supporters who have signed on to a Facebook group called Restaurant Workers of Maine.

“When you look at our wages, plus our tips, we are among the best-paid positions in the restaurant, and when you force my employer to give me an unnecessary raise, you’re literally taking money that she could be using to pay the back of the house a higher rate and forcing her to give it to me when I don’t need it,” McIntyre says.

Restaurant operators such as Susan Stephenson, who co-owns Pepinos in Bangor, say they’ve had to adjust their prices to address the increased costs of doing business after the minimum wage hike.

“So far, I think most businesses have gone up on their prices, a little bit, I think 5 percent is standard to cover payroll costs,” she says. “We’ve had to give some of our servers a $1.25 per hour raise.”

But that’s just to start. Stephenson says that if the tipped wage is allowed to continue rising by a $1 year for the next seven years, it will be difficult for many restaurants to keep their doors open as they choose between cutting back on serving hours or increasing menu prices.

But Mike Tipping, a spokesman for Mainers for Fair Wages, the group that supported passage of the minimum wage hike, says he doesn’t believe some of the stories he’s hearing from owners and servers.

“That hasn’t happened anywhere else, the tipped wage has been increased and tips are as high or higher in the seven states in the country that have no set minimum wage,” he says.

Tipping says he can’t understand why McIntyre and and servers like her would be experiencing declining tips. He wonders whether restaurant owners are trying to influence their employees on the issue.

“It’s pretty ridiculous, but when your boss comes and tells you that, obviously it’s concerning to you. And I think it’s really unfortunate that they’re spreading that kind of misinformation,” he says.

But Republican State Rep. Stacey Guerin of Glenburn says Tipping doesn’t have a good handle on tipping. Guerin and her family operate a restaurant and cooking company in Bangor. She says the reports she’s getting from her customers and constituents sound very much like what’s happening at Pepino’s.

“What I’m hearing is that they’re leaving a couple of bucks with their bill, they’re not even looking at the percentage anymore. They want to leave something, so they leave a couple of dollars, which is a nightmare for a server,” Guerin says. “I was a waitress in college and I wouldn’t have been happy to lose my tips.”

Guerin says she will be one of the lawmakers who will try to repeal the tip-credit portion of the minimum wage in the weeks ahead at the State House.