STATE HOUSE – Rep. Moira Walsh is sponsoring legislation
that would increase the minimum wage for tipped workers by 50 cents a year
until it reaches a level that is at least two-thirds of the standard minimum
wage, then ensure that it increases proportionately along with the standard
Currently, the minimum wage for tipped employees in Rhode
Island is $3.89, while the standard minimum wage is $9.60. When both minimum
wages were set in 1956, the tipped minimum was two-thirds the standard, 60
cents and 90 cents, respectively, and the two were tethered so that if the
standard minimum increased, so would the tipped minimum.
In 2000, Rhode Island eliminated a provision that set the
tipped minimum as a percentage of the standard minimum wage, leaving it at
$2.89, where it had already been for four years, and where it stayed until the
General Assembly approved legislation raising it by 50 cents last year and
another 50 cents this year.
Representative Walsh’s legislation (2017-H 5315)
would institute a 50-cent increase on Jan. 1, 2018, and continue to raise the
tipped minimum wage by 50 cents each year until it is equal to at least
two-thirds of the standard minimum wage. At that point, it would be linked to
the standard minimum wage, rising by two-thirds of any increase made to the
Representative Walsh, who until recently had worked as a
waitress her entire adult life, said she is sponsoring the legislation because
tipped employees need and deserve a reliable base wage, and a commitment that
their minimum wage will not be left to wither untouched again for decades again
as inflation and others’ wages rise.
“Just getting fifty cents or a dollar this year isn’t going
to mean much if servers have to keep coming back here every year for a few
cents to try to make up for lost ground and not fall behind again. If tipped
employees are going to have a minimum wage that is less than their non-tipped
counterparts, it’s only fair that it should be a rate that better reflects the
original intention of the law establishing it, and that it should rise
alongside minimum wage proportionately,” said Representative Walsh (D-Dist. 3,
Providence). “Tipped employees face the same rising costs of living as everyone
else, so when it’s determined that minimum wage should increase, so should the
tipped minimum wage.”
Representative Walsh said she believes the bill provides
security for both employees and employers, because it would set out a
predictable series of annual increases to bring the rate into the two-thirds
proportion where it would become linked to the standard minimum wage.
While some advocates for hourly employees have argued for
eliminating the lower minimum wage for tipped employees altogether,
Representative Walsh said many in the restaurant industry are concerned that
doing so will open the door for employers to start demanding that servers hand
over their tips because they are already paid a “fair” wage.
According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, an
organization dedicated to improving wages and working conditions for the
nation’s restaurant workforce, the average tip in Rhode Island restaurants is
15.8 percent of the check.
“Although 15-percent tips at a fine dining restaurant will
add up, servers at diners — who are mostly women — frequently get as little as
a couple of dollars on a breakfast check. Fast turnover is the only way for
them to earn a decent wage, so every time the restaurant is anything less than
very busy, they will suffer. No working person deserves to be paid just a
small fraction of minimum wage for hours of work,” said Representative Walsh.
The bill, which has had a hearing before the House Labor
Committee, is cosponsored by Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Dist. 4, Providence), Rep.
Joseph S. Almeida (D-Dist. 12, Providence), Rep. Shelby Maldonado (D-Dist. 56,
Central Falls) and Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence).