A group of Portland restaurant owners and workers are opposing Question D on the Nov. 8 municipal ballot, which would raise the minimum wage to $18 an hour.
A collective called Restaurant Industry United is arguing that the ballot initiative would do more harm than good by upending the tipping structure for servers and restaurants. The group was expected to hold a rally at Bruno’s Restaurant & Tavern on Allen Avenue Tuesday afternoon to launch its campaign against the question.
The proposal would raise the minimum wage in Portland to $18 an hour over the next three years, including for tipped workers. The Maine Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which proposed the initiative, argues that tipped workers have faced a lot of uncertainty throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and adding to their base wage would help guarantee their financial stability.
Some workers, however, are concerned they will actually earn less if voters approve Question D.
Joshua Chaisson, president of Restaurant Workers of America and a server for more than 22 years, including 10 in Portland, said there are “unintended consequences” of the referendum.
“This is not a broken system in need of fixing,” Chaisson said. “(Question D) is not something that we’re asking for.”
Chaisson and RIU argue that as servers’ wages go up, tips go down.
“At base value, it would seem as though we’re arguing for less wages,” he said. “But the reason we do that is because it allows us to remain the commission-based salespeople that we consider ourselves to be.”
Voters may think they’re doing good and helping out, Chaisson said, but they don’t realize it would be hurting the same workers they’re trying to help.
The impact Question D would have on restaurants isn’t lost on owners either.
Shaun McCarthy, owner of Dock Fore in the Old Port, said if the initiative passes it will be “the last straw” for many Portland restaurants.
McCarthy said his prices would definitely go up to cover the increased labor cost. A cheeseburger that is $15 in Portland will cost $20 or $30 in 2025, without considering inflation, and a domestic beer that’s $5 will be $7, McCarthy wrote in an email.
He also said the higher minimum wage could also exacerbate staffing struggles because many servers have told him they’d seek jobs in other communities rather than risk taking an overall cut in pay.
“The consumer will follow the server and go to another city for their meal,” McCarthy said, “and how can you blame them.”