Last week, the Maine Department of Labor announced that it will not be enforcing a key piece of the minimum wage referendum that passed overwhelmingly in every county in the state last month. In a press release, the LePage administration said it will delay the voter-mandated increase in the sub-minimum wage for workers who receive tips from $3.75 to $5 per hour for three weeks in January in the hopes that the Legislature will repeal it when it reconvenes. 

“Many employers and employees are unaware of the relationship between the minimum wage in Maine and the minimum salary that an exempt worker must be paid, and many legislators have announced a bill to restore the tip credit,” said Gov. Paul LePage in a statement. “It is entirely appropriate for the Department of Labor to take time to help employers and workers understand and comply with the law without taking them to task.”

The new law phases out the sub-minimum wage for tipped employees by gradually increasing it by $1 per year until it is equal to the general minimum wage in 2024. The DOL says employers will be expected to follow the new general minimum wage, which will increase from $7.50 to $9 per hour on January 7. The new law also incrementally raises the minimum wage by $1 per year until it reaches $12 per hour in 2020 and then indexes it to inflation. 

Several restaurant owners and some tipped workers have been pressuring lawmakers to repeal the tipped wage increase, arguing that it will lead to lower wages. However, according to the federal Department of Labor (DOL), most waitstaff would make a lot more money if the sub-minimum wage were eliminated, noting that most tipped employees don’t work at fine dining establishments where tips are high.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for restaurant servers is about $11.07 an hour and tipped employees experience poverty at double the rate of non-tipped workers. Nearly half of all tipped workers receive public benefits because they don’t earn enough money to survive, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And although employers are required to ensure employees make at least the general minimum wage after tips, the federal DOL notes that restaurants often ignore the law. According to data from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, between 2009 and 2015, the division uncovered 2,000 cases involving violations of tipped minimum wage provisions, representing $16 million in back wages owed.

A spokesman for the Question 4 minimum wage campaign accused the governor of ignoring the will of the Maine voters and “flat-out encouraging employers to commit wage theft.”

“Refusing to enforce the minimum wage law, and especially the increase in the base wage for tipped workers from $3.75 to $5 an hour, is a slap in the face to tens of thousands of Mainers who are working hard and too often struggling to afford heat, food and medicine,” said Mainers for Fair Wages Campaign Manager Amy Halsted in a statement. “Mainers for Fair Wages will be leading a campaign to make sure employers know the law and that workers get the raises that more than 400,000 Maine voters just approved. If you work a job as a restaurant server, you should be receiving a $5 base wage plus your full tips as of January 7th. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.”

Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook Cty) said in a statement that Senate Democrats will not entertain any change to the law as long as the governor is refusing to enforce it. 

“Gov. LePage says he won’t enforce this law because the Legislature may amend it. But the Legislature has the power to amend any law,” Jackson said. “Should the governor stop enforcing unemployment protections, or workers compensation laws, or honoring pro-business tax credits just because the Legislature may amend them some time in the future? This is a scary precedent to set.”

The governor later told WVOM that the referendums are just “recommendations” that “the Legislature doesn’t even have to enact,” according to his own questionable interpretation of the Constitution. 

Eliminating the Medical Marijuana Program?

Speaking to WGAN radio last week, LePage also announced that he wants to “get rid of” the medical marijuana program altogether. 

“If you’ve got recreational marijuana [and] it’s over the counter, why do we need medical marijuana?” said LePage. “…You don’t need a prescription to buy Bayer aspirin so why do you need a prescription to buy recreational marijuana or medical marijuana?”

Longtime medical marijuana advocate Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) immediately rejected the suggestion, arguing that the recreational law and the medical cannabis program should be considered separate from each other. 

“Under recreational, patients will not be able to receive the specialized products specifically grown for their condition,” said Sanderson, who is the ranking Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee. “In the medical cannabis program, caregivers spend time one on one with patients to ensure the product they provide delivers the benefits needed to combat a medical condition. Cancer patients, children with seizure disorders, and patients with chronic pain that need relief without the psychoactive effect will be adversely affected if the medical program is dismantled.” 

The Budget Weight-Loss Regimen

Meanwhile, several observers have noted that the governor has been looking much thinner after a long stay in Florida last month. Speaking on WGAN, LePage said that the stress of putting together a budget following the passage of the referendums has been taking its toll on his body. 

He said he intends to make some “severe cuts” to some “really good programs” in order to prevent damage to the economy. 

“And I’m telling you, people say I lost a lot of weight,” said the governor. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep over it, too. It’s melting right off of me.” 

When asked by The Free Press last month about rampant rumors that the governor actually underwent elective surgery, LePage’s press secretary Adrienne Bennett responded in an email, “Your information is utterly incorrect.”