As hourly minimum wage rises, Walsh renews call for raise of tipped minimum wage

Legislation would restore rate to two-thirds minimum wage, where it started


STATE HOUSE – A $1 raise in Rhode Island’ hourly minimum wage in October is on its way to the governor’s desk after approval by the General Assembly yesterday.

But the approximately 22,000 Rhode Islanders who are paid the tipped minimum wage — $3.89 — will be left behind by that raise.

For that reason, Rep. Moira Walsh is renewing her call for passage of her legislation to gradually increase the tipped minimum wage and tie it to raises in the standard minimum wage.

The standard minimum wage is $10.50, and it will rise to $11.50 in October under a bill approved by legislators yesterday. 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 in 2016 and another 50 cents in 2017.

Representative Walsh’s bill (2020-H 7466) would institute a 50-cent increase on Jan. 1, 2021, 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. Then it would be linked to the standard minimum wage, rising by two-thirds of any increase made to the standard rate.

Representative Walsh, who worked as a waitress her entire adult life before becoming a legislator, said she is sponsoring the bill 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 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.

“Although tips can add up for those who work in fine dining, for the many who work in less-expensive family restaurants and diners, tips are often 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 suffer. No working person deserves to be paid a fraction of minimum wage for hours of work,” said Representative Walsh.

She added that the issue is inextricably linked with family and childhood poverty. The vast majority of servers, particularly at less expensive restaurants, are women, many of whom are single parents.

The bill, which had a hearing before the House Labor Committee yesterday, is cosponsored by Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence), Rep. John J. Lombardi (D-Dist. 8, Providence), Rep. Raymond A. Hull (D-Dist. 6, Providence, North Providence), and Rep. Kathleen A. Fogarty (D-Dist. 35, South Kingstown).



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