I wouldn’t have slung eggs for minimum wage

One of my biggest concerns with Question 4 on the November ballot increasing the minimum wage was the issue of eliminating tipped wages. I hope the legislature reinstates the tip credit. If there’s one thing Maine’s workers need, it’s an increase in the minimum wage.

If there’s one thing Maine workers don’t need, it’s eliminating the tip credit. Tips justify all the hard work and the tired, swollen feet that make their way home at the end of a shift.

I say that as someone who LOVED working in restaurants. My bad experiences with customers were few, and I developed lifelong friendships while working in food service. And for years, when I talk about my professional experience, I always give a nod to Gladys Mulholland.

She and her husband Mo owned the Augusta House of Pancakes, and waiting tables there was my first formal job.

The sign outside the Augusta House of Pancakes, Augusta.  Photo by Trish Callahan

The sign outside the Augusta House of Pancakes. Photo by Trish Callahan

When I think about learning about work skills from Gladys, it’s like thinking about learning about basketball from the likes of Coach Bob Brown or Coach Paul Vachon. Gladys knew how to lead a team, how to get the best of her players, and how to keep the fans coming back.

Her training is an essential part of my work ethic.

If wait staff followed her lead, a good server could make a lot of money. Good service helped the restaurant make money; and good service made the customers happy. A win-win-win. Restaurants like AHOP serve community, too, beyond providing jobs.

They provide familiar, affordable places for locals to gather over and over again for generations.

I stopped at AHOP the other day to see if an old picture of me was still hanging near the counter. The restaurant had just closed, and I introduced myself to the young man overseeing the details. Turns out he’s one of Gladys and Mo’s grandsons, John.

I explained who I was, what I was doing, and the articulate, twenty-something was nice enough to chat with me about the tip credit/minimum wage issue. John said the wait staff was not happy about switching to a minimum wage structure at all. Our conversation then moved to how difficult it would be to sustain this now third-generation family business with the increased costs the change brings.

The menu prices for breakfast food can only be raised so much.

John was also kind enough to indulge my search for the image of my younger self. Sure enough, it was hanging behind the counter, near the pick-up window, right above where I was standing when it was taken.

The counter at AHOP -- my photo can be seen hanging to the right of the pole in the background.  Photo by Trish Callahan

The counter at AHOP — my photo can be seen hanging to the right of the pole in the background. Photo by Trish Callahan

AHOP staff photo collage from the 1980's including yours truly.  Photo by Trish Callahan

AHOP staff photo collage from the 1980’s including yours truly on the top row, 5th one from the left — sorry about  the blurriness. Photo by Trish Callahan

Granted, the restaurant had been remodeled a bit since then, but the bit of nostalgia was as delicious as a plate of home fries. I met a bald, black photographer at that counter who went on to be my dearest friend for 29 years.

Sylvester Cobbs - Family photo

Sylvester Cobbs – Family photo

Waitressing and bartending are the only jobs I’ve ever had where the amount of money I made in a given shift was immediately and directly related to how well and how hard I worked. I liked that.

Sometimes in the professional world, a total slacker can get ahead, riding on the hard work of others. Not so in the tipped world.

The people opposed to reinstating the tip credit at the state house are mostly Democrats and organizations like the AFL-CIO and the Maine People’s Alliance. Whoever they are, I’m guessing they never waited tables in Maine or if they did, they were lousy at it or worked at bad restaurants. That’s the only possible way I can explain their belief in federal data that estimates the average tipped worker in Maine only earns $9 an hour.

I could earn that working a Saturday morning shift at AHOP in 1984. If I remember correctly, a really slow, day was $30-$40 in tips, plus $2-ish an hour in wages. I mostly worked the side dining room, which was a 6-7 hour shift.

So on my worst days, I was earning roughly $7-8 an hour. Average days were in the $50-$60 range for tips, and the best were around $80. Slinging eggs in 1984. I’d like to think people waiting tables today are doing better than $9.

As much as I loved my customers and the tempo of the restaurant, there’s no way I, along with my egg allergy, would have been slinging eggs at 6:00 on a Satuday morning for whatever minimum wage was at the time.

Opponents also say tipped workers are more prone to sexual harassment. Again, I’m not sure from where that belief stems. I think this blogging thing is the first gig I’ve had that hasn’t involved some level of sexual harassment or some level of gender-based, unsettling conduct.

Having experienced those situations in both professional and restaurant settings, I prefer the restaurant option of smacking an offending party’s hand and/or telling him to back off. The process for doing the professional version of the same thing in other work environments is long, tortured, and even with a successful outcome, way less fulfilling.

The weak justifications for opposing reinstatement of the tip credit make me think about my other major concern with Question 4 and our referendum process in general:  the influence of massive amounts of out-of-state, special interest money on Maine legislation. I can’t help but feel that some of the opposition is simply a matter of people toeing the line for the big money funders of the question, whether it’s in Mainers’ best interests or not.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.