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Sue Valenza is a bartender in Kennebunk.
I have been a bartender in Portland and Kennebunk for more than 20 years. Now, the industry I love is struggling to survive. On top of mandated service restrictions, Congress is now considering a bill that could be the final nail in the coffin for thousands of restaurant workers like myself.
Navigating COVID-19 has been incredibly difficult. I am currently collecting unemployment for a second time after going back to work last June. My restaurant closed for a few weeks so our staff could be tested (everyone was negative) and our restaurant deep-cleaned. My unemployment pay is one-third of what I was making. Overall, last year I made just half of what I made in 2019.
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Still, I am fortunate that my restaurant is still open, even though we are closed Mondays and Tuesdays and have been subject to strict curfews. More than 100,000 restaurants have closed either permanently or long term in the U.S. in the past year. The industry is hanging on by a thread.
In a misguided attempt to help workers, Congress is considering the Raise the Wage Act, a bill that seeks to establish a national minimum wage of $15 an hour. What many legislators — and most Americans — don’t realize is that the bill would also eliminate the tip credit system.
Under the current tipping system, servers and bartenders are paid a base wage plus well-earned gratuities. If our take-home pay, after factoring in tips, doesn’t reach the state minimum wage, our employer must make up the difference. However, many servers, myself included, frequently make well above minimum wage. This tip credit system has worked for years in an industry with very slim profit margins. But the Raise the Wage Act would eliminate this system, hurting the countless servers that thrive under it.
When the minimum wage rises for tipped employees, it causes payrolls to skyrocket. Without a tip credit, that means less money will be available for support staff, advertisements and entertainment. Ultimately, workers will be scheduled for fewer hours, and some restaurants may be forced to cut back service overall. The result will be fewer jobs for restaurant workers who are already struggling to stay afloat.
READ MORE MINIMUM WAGE COVERAGE
We’ve fought successfully against efforts to eliminate the tip credit in the past. Now, the Restaurant Workers of Maine are once again flooding our state and national legislators with information regarding the benefits of the tipped-wage system. We are also fighting against outside unions that want to make us dues-paying members, but push for a policy that would threaten our livelihoods.
Now is not the time to overhaul a system that has given so many, especially women, the opportunity to rise above poverty. Removing the tip credit system will not save anyone; it will only plunge countless workers into financial despair. If our restaurant industry hopes to recover after COVID-19, our politicians must do the right thing and preserve the tip credit.