Yes on Four: Enough about “wealthy waiters,” we need to talk about poverty

I’m tired of hearing folks talk about the workers serving high end food in Portland’s upscale restaurants as if they were the primary group of people that will be affected if Question Four passes on Election Day.

They’re not.

If Question Four passes, by 2020, Maine’s primary minimum wage will come to $12 an hour, raised from the $7.50 an hour it is today.  By 2024, the minimum wage for Maine workers who receive tips will also be $12 an hour, up from it’s current rate of $3.75 an hour.

Sure this reform will impact college educated twenty somethings serving foie gras at four star restaurants, collecting 20% tips off of Maine’s wealthiest patrons.

But, nationally, tipped workers in the restaurant industry only make up about 38% of the almost three million workers making the minimum wage or less.

And, of those, the vast majority of servers really aren’t making out like bandits.

Nationally, the median wage for tipped workers is a mere $8.92 per hour.

According to a 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute, tipped workers are more than twice as likely to fall under the federal poverty line, and nearly three times as likely to rely on food stamps, as the average worker.

And what about the other 62% of workers earning minimum wage or less?

There are tons of Maine workers currently making under $12 an hour who aren’t working in high end restaurants.

Who are they?

They’re janitors and supermarket clerks. They’re doing menial jobs in call centers, helping at local nonprofits and lugging stuff around warehouses. In Portland, they’re working hard to do things like make the beds at the fancy hotels in the Old Port, provide direct support to some of our most vulnerable populations, and stock the shelves at Rite Aid.

It’s infuriating when the Portland Phoenix runs a major story on Question Four on the cover of their paper and focuses exclusively on the people serving meals in our city’s best restaurants.

It’s like writing about our state’s public assistance programs and only talking about the most affluent recipients, or discussing homelessness in Portland by only looking at the people living on our streets who aren’t completely destitute.

According to the Center for American Progress, over 180,000 Mainers live in poverty (14% of people in Maine). Even more will experience at least one time this year when it’s difficult to provide enough food for their families due to a lack of money or resources.

Paying minimum wage workers $24k a year instead of $15k for working full time won’t magically fix all of their problems, but it will help.

There are plenty of fear mongers trying to convince us otherwise, claiming that Maine will lose jobs if Question Four passes, but personally, I have a hard time believing them.

Steve DiMillo, who owns DiMillo’s restaurant, has been a leading opponent of every effort to raise the minimum wage since I moved to Portland eight years ago.

A veteran of the restaurant industry, Steve speaks with authority and apparent candor.  But Steve isn’t an economist behaving objectively.  He’s a businessman doing everything he can to protect his bottom line.

600 people who actually are economists, including 7 Nobel Prize winners, support raising the minimum wage.

In an official letter to President Obama, they write that far from weakening our communities, “a minimum-wage increase could have a small stimulative effect on the economy as low-wage workers spend their additional earnings, raising demand and job growth.”

Given that employers will have a few years to phase it in, I really think Maine’s economy at large will be totally fine.

Last year, Portland passed a municipal ordinance raising our minimum wage to $10.10 for non-tipped workers. A year later, most Portlanders seem to have barely even noticed the change.

Except those workers who benefited. They certainly noticed.

According to researchers at the University of Washington, the economy in Seattle, where the minimum wage was raised to $15 an hour last year, is now doing better than ever.

Over the last fifty years, wages for the average worker have remained fairly stagnant while the costs of education and healthcare have skyrocketed.

If Question Four passes it could help a lot of people, most of whom many of us aren’t likely to interact with on a daily basis.

This matters.

We need to be talking about poverty and justice.

Not just where to buy dinner on date night.

Rob Korobkin

About Rob Korobkin

Rob is a software engineer, community organizer, teacher and musician. He can often be found at Peloton Labs, staring at his laptop, drafting diatribes and programming software late into the night.