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Hundreds of Restaurant Workers Crowd State House in Debate Over Minimum Wage

Kevin Bennett
In the packed hallways of the Cross office building Cory King, executive director of the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber, offers direction to people who wish to offer testimony either in favor of or opposed to the return of the tip credit.

The continuing debate over whether to change how Maine’s new minimum wage law affects tipped workers raged on in Augusta Wednesday, as stakeholders on both sides filled three overflow hearing rooms and crowded the hallways of the State House.

Last fall voters approved a citizens initiative that gradually increases Maine’s minimum wage over a period of years. It also requires that restaurants pay a higher minimum wage than they have in the past, doing away with the so-called tip credit that allowed restaurants to pay a lower minimum wage for workers who received gratuities.

A statewide group calling itself the Restaurant Workers of Maine wants to bring back the old system and restore the tip credit. Lisa Sturgeon, who works at a Bangor restaurant, is one of them.

“I have volunteered my time to help reinstate the tip credit, like countless others across the state. As you can see, we are the restaurant workers of Maine. We are not paid lobbyists,” she says.

Sturgeon was among hundreds of workers, mostly from the restaurant industry, who crowded into the hearing rooms set aside for the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

Some in the hallways outside the hearing complained that the committee let lawmakers speak for over two hours before a single member of the public got to testify at the “public” hearing.

Sandra Christiansen, a server at a Portland restaurant, says she fears that the higher minimum wage system created in the new law will result in a pay cut.

“I’ve made more than the minimum wage — two to three times more — for years. And I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” she says.

Credit Kevin Bennett
Michelle, a restaurant worker at Cole Farm Restaurant in Gray, holds a sign in support of the tip credit as she joins others who were forced to listen in on public testimony at a small cafe in the Capitol building on Wednesday.

But some servers are happy with the new law and urged lawmakers to resist efforts to bring back the tip credit. Kathy Rondoni of Augusta says she is retired and only works part time, but the $30 a week increase she saw when the law took effect has been life changing.

“That little extra bit of money each paycheck changes major crisis into simple inconveniences,” she says.

Rondoni says she had volunteered on the campaign last fall that passed the referendum and was glad that she had helped with its passage.

Cheryl Bullock of Harpswell also supports the new law. She testified that when she owned a sports bar in Lewiston she paid the regular minimum wage to her staff and they still got tips.

“And for the record, no one stopped tipping my workers because of their pay. People tip for service, not because of what people are making,” she says.

Credit Kevin Bennett
Cortney Sukeforth, a waitress at Long Grain restaurant in Camden, sits on the floor with other restaurant workers as public testimony concerning reinstatement of the tip credit is piped into the welcome center at the state Capitol on Wednesday.

Bullock says the voters supported the change this past fall and that the Legislature should not second guess that decision.

Some of those who came to support the referendum were questioned about whether they were paid staff of the Maine People’s Alliance, the progressive organization that spearheaded the campaign. Some were, but Joshua Chasson of Portland, who says he is a Bernie Sanders Democrat and considers himself a progressive, blasted the MPA.

“The Maine People’s Alliance is bullying Democratic legislators and making this a partisan issue. It is not. It is a common-sense legislation issue,” he says.

Legislation to reinstate the tip credit does have some bipartisan support. The issue dominated the day, even though the panel was scheduled to take up other related measures, including a repeal of automatic increases based on inflation and the creation a training wage that would be lower than the regular minimum wage.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.