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 minimum wage.

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 standard rate.

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).

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