There are a number of questions on this year’s municipal ballot for Portland voters to decide. Some of them have been pretty uncontentious this campaign season, while others have garnered much more attention in the press. Perhaps the most heated debate has been reserved for Question D – An Act to Eliminate the Sub-Minimum Wage, Increase Minimum Wages and Strengthen Protections for Workers. And all this debate has (sometimes purposely) muddied the waters on what this Question would mean for people who work in Portland, so let’s break it down.
“The goal is to make sure people in Portland are making a wage that lets them live here. Because, right now, it’s a very low minimum wage and people are being driven out. And also, it eliminates the sub-minimum wage which means that gig workers who are trying to make a living here, that city workers who are not getting paid a competitive wage, and that service workers who can’t necessarily rely on their wage to be sustainable […] will make enough to continue to be able to work in Portland without having to drive in from an ever expanding bubble.”
– Wes Pelletier, Chair of the Livable Portland Campaign
Why YES on D?
Question D was proposed by Maine DSA for a Livable Portland, a campaign committee established by the Maine chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, for a few reasons. It’s widely known and accepted that the cost of living in Portland has been going up and up this generation. As tourism increases, as gentrification rattles our housing market, and as wealthy out-of-staters continue to purchase condominiums here, Portland’s working-class has been forced to move further and further away from the city, or settle for unsafe living conditions owned by slumlords who extrapolate high rent while providing a bare minimum of maintenance. Maine DSA is confident that Question D, by providing a minimum wage of $18 per hour by 2025, will help Portland workers keep up with our city’s rising costs.
There has been some opposition to Question D from restaurant and gig economy interest groups. This is because Question D would apply to all workers in the city, including tipped workers who currently make a sub-minimum wage of $6.50 per hour, provided that their tips get them the rest of the way to minimum wage. This includes tipped service industry workers (like servers and bartenders) and gig workers (like Uber and DoorDash drivers). A couple groups, like Restaurant Industry United and a recent PAC called Enough is Enough, have attempted to frame this as a way to steal tips from workers who rely on them. But this is a lie. Workers who currently receive tips would still receive their tips. The law makes that a requirement. So, in effect, tipped workers will see an increase in their overall income. And there would be a two year period where the minimum wage would increase slowly, only hitting $18/hour in 2025, allowing businesses time to acclimate.
There is also the history behind the sub-minimum wage. As highlighted by the Center for American Progress, sub-minimum wages in the United States are rooted in racism and sexism. Low wage jobs dependent on tips started to appear after the Civil War in the service industry, allowing white owners to avoid paying fair wages to a predominantly Black and women-led service workforce. Then in 1938, those employers who relied on not paying service workers a fair wage lobbied hard to have them excluded from the Fair Standards Labor Act, which is why we see a difference between minimum wage and sub-minimum wage still to this day. And while the overt racist and sexist reasons behind the initial push for a sub-minimum wage may not be as prevalent today, its racist and sexist effects very much are. Women, who make up 70% of tipped labor in Portland, frequently report being sexually harassed, often by the very same customers whose tips they depend on for income, making it a fraught environment where workers have to decide if they should report the abuse, or put up with it to make ends meet. And a 2020 report by Restaurant Opportunities Center found that in states with a sub-minimum wage, the poverty gap between white service workers and service workers of color is larger than in states that demand one fair minimum wage for all workers. So, it’s clear that the existence of a sub-minimum wage in our service industries leads to exacerbated racist and sexist effects.
As mentioned above, there are a few opposition groups to Question D. There is the Restaurant Workers of America, a conservative industry group that fights to keep sub-minimum wages for service workers. It’s unclear if they know that the sub-minimum wage is rooted in racism and sexism, but we aren’t holding our breath when it comes to them caring.
Then, there is Restaurant Industry United which, as far as we can tell, was developed primarily by Portland restaurant owners in order to oppose Question D, and funded almost exclusively by the national lobbying group for chain restaurants, the National Restaurant Association, and Uber and DoorDash ($100,000, to date, from just these three). Theirs is the typical misinformation and bad faith framing of Question D that lies about workers taking pay cuts and employers cutting jobs. The truth is tipped workers would see an increase in income. According to a 2022 report on Question D by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, “research on the tipped minimum wage system shows that it is generally harmful to the workers covered by it.” And, “workers in low-wage service occupations would benefit most from the proposed increase. 80 percent of workers in food and drink preparation and serving would see an increase, as more than would three quarters of personal service workers (this includes hairdressers, beauticians and childcare workers).”
Outside of the restaurant groups, there is Enough is Enough, a Political Action Committee that has received over a half million dollars in donations, largely from landlords, interest groups, and big gig corporations like Uber and DoorDash. Enough is Enough opposes all questions on the November ballot in Portland. This isn’t surprising, judging from their list of donors. It’s a smokescreen for conservative monied interests to combat any real reform in the city, including Question D. The amount of corporate money alone that this PAC has raised should alarm any democracy loving resident. And on top of that they’ve hired Lance Dutson, a GOP consultant who has worked on Susan Collins’ campaigns and was former CEO of the conservative think tank Maine Heritage Policy Center (now known as Maine Policy Institute).
What isn’t Being Discussed
Question D is about more than just an increased minimum wage. While its opponents struggle to frame it merely as a change to the sub-minimum wage for restaurant workers, it also allows gig workers for Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash to finally make a fair wage. These gig delivery workers have to pay for their own gas and car maintenance, often leaving them with little to no profits after the corporations take their cut. It’s time they receive a fair minimum wage so they can afford to live and work in our city, too.
And the one issue almost no one is talking about is how Question D would establish a Department of Fair Labor Practices. Right now, Portland has no Department of Labor to focus on enforcing its labor laws, so it is fairly easy for things like wage theft and unsafe working conditions to potentially go unnoticed. Question D would mandate the city establish a department focused on this task, holding employers accountable when it comes to workers’ rights and safety regarding city laws. This is perhaps the least discussed but one of the most important things our city needs: oversight in the name of workers’ rights.
So, as you prepare to go to Portland’s polls this November 8th, don’t be fooled by the lies opponents of Question D are feeding you. It’s been a long road but it’s about time Portland centers its working families struggling to afford an ever rising cost of living. That’s why D has been endorsed by Labor groups like the Southern Maine Labor Council, The United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Locals 349 and 352, The Southern Maine Workers Center, One Fair Wage, many small businesses, and hundreds of workers across the city.
Tell your Portland friends and family, vote YES on Question D.