- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Lawmakers could make changes to a voter-approved minimum wage law to require employers to pay tipped workers the minimum wage, regardless of how much they make in tips.

Scores of restaurant owners and workers, both supporters and opponents of the law, testified at the Statehouse on Wednesday before the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

Voters approved an increase in Maine’s minimum wage from $7.50 per hour to $9 starting this year, and then $12 an hour by 2020. Then, the wage would increase according to inflation. Tipped employees’ wages - which is now $5 an hour up from $3.75 - would reach the minimum wage by 2024.

The law went into effect in January. There’s no data to show what the impact has been so far, and supporters and critics say both sides are relying on exaggeration, fear and anecdotes or faulty studies.

Several bills with Democratic and Republicans co-sponsors would heed Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s call to bring back the ability to pay tipped employees below the minimum wage if they make up the difference in tips. The governor said he now undertips waiters and tells them to complain to legislators.

Republican Rep. Lance Harvell wants to eliminate indexing the minimum wage to inflation. Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson’s bill would study what happens as tipped workers’ wages increase during the next two years.

Ali Boulier, a Charleston, Maine, resident and bartender and server at Pepino’s Mexican Restaurant in Bangor, said her primary concern is that customers will start tipping her less. She said she’s also concerned that raising tipped workers’ base pay would hurt the restaurant industry.

“I don’t strive to make $12 to $15 an hour,” said Boulier, who estimates she makes $25 to $30 an hour thanks to tips. She said a few recent customers didn’t tip her, making her wonder if they thought she earns more than she does.

Nathaniel Burke, owner of Pat’s Pizza in Machias, said he supports the minimum wage hike but worries the elimination of the tipped wage will lead to cuts in wait staff and higher menu prices.

“Washington County is the second-poorest county in the state,” he said. “That’s not a good option for our business.”

Supporters repeatedly claim that tipping has not declined in states with the same wage for all employers, including Alaska.

Esther Pew, of East Andover, Maine, and server at Spare Time Entertainment in Portland, said she has not seen a decline in tips during the past few months.

“I don’t think tipping will change at all,” she said.

Kathryn Harnish, who has owned The Vault Restaurant in Houlton for a year, said that she supports a fair, consistent living wage for all employees, including waitresses who may face sexual harassment. She said the restaurant has increased in profitability after raising wages, which she said has led to high worker retention.

“They know what they’re doing. We’re not training new people all the time,” she said.


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