Maine Voices: Awareness of tipped-wage issue might have tipped balance on Question 4 vote

Original Article: http://www.pressherald.com/2016/12/12/maine-voices-awareness-of-tipped-wage-issue-might-have-tipped-question-4-balance/

  • Author: Michael Saltsman

  • Publication Date: December 2016

  • Newspaper: Portland Press Herald

  • Topics: Minimum Wage, Tipped Wage, Unemployment

A majority of Maine voters approved a $12-an-hour minimum wage on Nov. 8. But many voters didn’t understand that, when they voted for $12, they were also voting for a radical (and little-advertised) provision to raise the minimum wage for tipped employees by 220 percent. Fortunately, the Legislature has a chance to fix it.

After the election last month, we used Google’s Consumer Survey tool to poll 500 Maine residents who voted on the ballot question (either for or against). One-quarter of “yes” voters did not understand that the ballot measure also raised the required base wage for tipped employees by a triple-digit percentage – even if they already earn far more than $12 an hour with tips included.

Given how relatively close the ballot measure’s outcome was, this lack of voter knowledge can’t be discounted. Of the roughly 417,000 “yes” voters, our survey suggests that over 104,000 of them were not fully aware of what they were voting on. If even half of these “yes” voters changed their vote, the outcome of Question 4 would have flipped – with 387,000 “no” votes and 365,000 “yes” votes.

This lack of voter knowledge is understandable. For starters, the tipped wage is a complicated and wonky issue that is generally unknown to those who haven’t worked in the restaurant industry. Contrary to labor union rhetoric, there is no “subminimum” wage in Maine – there’s just one minimum wage, and all employees are subject to it based on wages and tip income earned. Yet over a third of voters weren’t aware that tipped employees in Maine are required by law to receive at least the full state minimum wage in tips and base pay.

The “Yes on 4” campaign did relatively little to advertise the tipped wage provision in the lead-up to the vote, and with good reason: Only seven states have taken the extreme step that was proposed in Maine.

The funders for the Yes on 4 campaign (including the New York-based Restaurant Opportunities Center) have tried to expand the idea elsewhere. But even in blue states like Rhode Island and Maryland, Democratic legislators understood that there was no reason to change the status quo for tipped employees who already earn far more than the minimum wage between their tips and base pay.

The consequences for tipped employees of dramatically increasing the tipped minimum wage are severe. In California and New York, numerous restaurants have eliminated tipping as a consequence, causing a steep drop in take-home pay for servers. In San Francisco, restaurants Trou Normand and Bar Agricole lost 70 percent of their staff during one such experiment, after servers who were making up to $45 an hour with tips saw their pay fall as low as $20 an hour without.

A grass-roots employee coalition called Restaurant Workers of Maine, which already has over 4,000 members, has started a petition in favor of fixing the ballot measure. Their petition reads: “It is common knowledge in the restaurant industry that service staff earn, with tips, way more than the minimum wage.”

If Maine legislators don’t act, the current language in Question 4 puts these employees’ tip income at risk – as well as thousands of tipped job opportunities. This isn’t crying wolf. In California and New York, dramatic increases in the minimum wage for tipped employees have forced dozens of restaurants to close or cut back on hours or staffing, citing wage costs as the determining factor.

Employees support a fix, and so do voters: Sixty percent of Maine voters said they’d support (or be indifferent) if the Maine Legislature fixed the tipped wage portion of the referendum. Among those who were not aware that the referendum included a massive tipped wage hike, this figure rises to 71 percent. Maine’s Legislature can preserve high-paying tipped jobs while still ensuring that every employee receives the new $12 minimum wage.