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Sisyphus at the Taps: Pay and opportunity gaps in the craft beer industry

by | Nov 19, 2021

The tip box for charity at Allagash Brewing’s tasting room. photo/Tom Major

Imagine getting paid to host daily or nightly parties, week after week, month after month, year after year. You have a budget, and you don’t have to use your own home, but you do need to set up, clean up, and make sure everyone’s having fun.  

Dream job or nightmare? Fun for a while, maybe, but how long could you keep doing it?  

It’s not an idle question. A friend recently shared with me some concerns a local taproom employee shared with him, including low and unpredicatable tip-based pay, stingy benefits, and a lack of opportunity for advancement. While such arrangements may be fine for younger workers with fewer expenses and expectations, the source lamented that older workers like himself are stuck in poverty — unable to, say, buy a home or afford an apartment in Portland without roomates. 

I visited a few local breweries and inquired about pay, benefits and career aspirations. I promised anonymity in exchange for candor, so forgive the lack of identifying details like where we were or what we were drinking.

I was prepared for a deluge of complaints. The hours can be brutal (as can be the customers), the benefits are lame, and the rent really is too damn high. But while some said this source’s concerns resonated with them, they all said their jobs were more lucrative and more satisfying than I’d imagined they’d be.  

Managing a tasting room is not a 40-hour-a-week job; estimates shared with me put it closer to 50 or 60 hours per week. That’s why it’s a salaried position, one manager explained. And yet a salaried supervisor is still going to have to take shifts at the bar to get those tips. Some managers acknowledged that without tips the job would not pay enough. And though tip income is always unpredictable, it averages out well over the course of the year, they said. 

A few Maine breweries — notably Maine Beer Company and Allagash — do not permit tipping at the taproom. Both companies have long-standing policies of paying employees higher hourly wages and donating any gratuities to charities. Allagash was recently named one of the best places to work in Maine for the eighth year in a row, suggesting that their compensation package is meeting their employees’ expectations. Maine Beer Company’s full health insurance coverage, minimum three weeks of paid time off, and 5 percent contribution to workers’ 401(k) plans (whether or not the employee contributes to that fund) are similarly attractive. 

Under state law, the minimum wage for tipped workers will go up to $6.38 an hour in January, but some folks I spoke with have been making around $18 an hour, plus tips. (Note: If tipped workers fail to make the general state minimum wage — which will be $12.75 an hour in January — employers are required to make up the difference; in practice, this is relatively rare). When workers, upon cash-out, see the thousands of dollars their employer has made during their shift, and reflect that only about six bucks an hour is spent for their work, it’s not surprising that some feel cheated regardless of how much they make from customers.     

About two-thirds of my sources immediately and emphatically said they would not give up tips in exchange for twice their current base pay. The remaining third agreed, but were slower to respond, first taking time to estimate their income throughout the year. Unsurprisingly, tip income drops during non-summer months, but most managers said they save for the lean times.   

Opportunity for advancement, like pay, also varies widely among breweries.  One manager described an invisible but impermeable barrier separating the “front of house” workers from the brewing operations, but a growing number of Maine breweries now practice a “grow with the company” approach, promoting taproom workers to sales, production or office positions.  

To return to our original question, how long can one work in a taproom? I talked to numerous folks who left desk jobs for tasting-room gigs. Some took pay cuts, but others increased their income. Some are enjoying the work while they prepare for their next move; others plan to be as permanent as any worker can be these days.  

Perhaps the only thing all my sources could all agree on is that the rent really is too damn high. 

 

Send your thoughts about beer, beets, and Battlestar Galactica to majorinbeer@gmail.com. 

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