AUGUSTA — When news came out that a lawmaker wanted to remove language from state law saying wait staff owned their tips, the outcry from the people who turn tables for a living was fast and furious.

“The response to this has been greater than any other issue,” said Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay. “A 93-year-old woman called me at 6 o’clock in the morning the day a story appeared in the Sun Journal.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Brian Langley, R-Hancock, told a legislative panel on Wednesday it was all a misunderstanding. Langley, who owns a seasonal restaurant in Ellsworth, said he’s merely trying to amend the law to allow restaurants to determine when wait staff pool tips and to clarify a section about credit card service charges.

Langley has now agreed to keep existing language about tip ownership in the law. The Legislature added it in 2007 to reinforce provisions outlined in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act to protect wait staff from being denied gratuities by their employers.

“I wish there was a class for bill-writing,” Langley told the Labor Commerce Research and Economic Development Committee. “I’ve learned a valuable lesson.”

Langley’s original bill had drawn fire from restaurant and bar workers, as well as labor groups and Democrats. All worried the bill would remove state protections designed to prevent restaurant owners from withholding tips from wait staff.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, recently told the Sun Journal he would oppose the bill if Langley didn’t retain the tip ownership language. Morrison said he was unaware that Langley’s bill would attempt to remove the state provision.

Langley and supporters of the bill said they originally sought to strike the provision because it was already federal law and seemingly redundant.

Laura Harper of the Maine Women’s Lobby originally said her group would oppose the bill. But on Tuesday, Harper testified in favor of the measure after reworking the legislation with Langley and its two primary advocates, the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association.

Representatives from the two trade groups said their primary objective was to clarify two portions of the law that deal with tip-pooling and service charges in banquet settings.

State statute allows wait staff, not restaurant owners, to decide when to pool tips. Greg Dugal of the Maine Innkeepers Association said Maine law requires every service employee to sign an agreement to pool tips.

Federal law, Dugal said, doesn’t make that requirement. Langley’s bill would align Maine law with the federal standard, making it easier for restaurant owners to make decisions about pooling.

Dugal said Maine law also caused confusion about credit card service charges in banquet settings. In those settings, credit card service charges are supposed to be the property of the establishment owner because wait staff are typically paid a higher wage than wait staff in a restaurant.

Dugal said ambiguity in Maine law had made business owners susceptible to lawsuits that sought to claim the service charges as tips. Dugal said there had been at least two examples of “out-of-state” lawyers suing Maine hotels.

The service charge issue remained a sticking point between supporters of the bill and members of the labor panel, several of whom said Wednesday that they had waited tables. Other committee members said it is rarely clear to banquet attendees that wait staff were earning a higher wage, and some said they felt “duped” when they found out that service charges went to the business owner, not the staff serving them.

Harper, of the Maine Women’s Lobby, said that reaction was the reason she’s recommending language that would require business owners to clarify on credit receipts that the service charges aren’t tips but the property of the business owner.

“The customer deserves to know that service charges are the property of the employer and are not a tip or gratuity for the employee,” Harper said, adding that the ambiguity could harm wait staff earnings if customers assume the charges are actually tips.

Langley, as well as representatives from the restaurant and innkeepers associations, said they would try to hash out the language Harper suggested.

The bill, LD 207, is scheduled for a work session on Feb. 23.

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