R.I. bill seeks to boost minimum wage for tipped employees

Katherine Gregg

Raising the “sub-minimum wage” to two-thirds of the state’s minimum wage would give tipped employees the confidence to stand up to abusive customers, with less fear that a lost tip will affect their ability to support themselves, says the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Moira Walsh, a former waitress.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — As hard as it is for any employee to tell the boss or a customer — “That is not appropriate,” imagine the plight of a waitress.

“I know that sexual harassment in the restaurant industry is something that is very, very prevalent, and I, as a waitress, would always have this little argument in my brain whenever I was sexually harassed,” state Rep. Moira Walsh, 27, a former waitress, told colleagues last week.

“Is it worth it to defend myself when I know it’s going to cost me the tip? Is it worth it to look at a customer and say — ‘Hi. Not only is that not appropriate, that is actually sexual harassment and it’s illegal’ — when I know that after criticizing somebody like that they are going to leave me zero.

“So we put people in this position where they have to decide what’s worth more to them: feeding their children, or their dignity and quality of life and rights as a worker,” she said.

Walsh, D-Providence, told the House Labor Committee about this predicament in making the case for passage of legislation, which she re-introduced this year, to raise the state’s $3.89-an-hour “sub-minimum wage” by 50 cents a year until it reaches two-thirds of the state’s minimum wage, now $10.10 an hour and slated to rise to $10.50 an hour on Jan. 1, 2019.

Her argument: “Bringing the tipped minimum back up to two-thirds of the minimum wage will do a lot to help give waitresses the confidence and the room that they need to be able to stand up for themselves.”

Her testimony touched on an issue that has made national headlines in the midst of the #MeToo movement. The prevalence of such harassment in Rhode Island is not easy to measure. But The New York Times recently explored sexual harassment in the workplace for waiters and waitresses.

A recent story in the series began: “Lewd comments. Groping. Requests for dates and propositions for sex. We talked to more than 60 restaurant servers about their experiences with sexual harassment from customers … [about] the way servers balance the abusive behavior they endure against their need for tips.”

(The first example that came to Walsh’s mind was the customer who told her: “Yeah, I love it when you wear those leggings because every time you bend over I can see your panties.”)

Her legislation was one of a passel of bills to raise the state’s minimum wage — and sub-minimum wage — by varying degrees that pitted business owners and their lobbyists against union leaders and workers-right advocates during House and Senate hearings last week.

With a minimum wage increase already queued up for 2019, the governor and legislative leaders have shown little inclination to raise it further during this year’s legislative session. But they have not talked about the minimum paid to tipped workers in a state where there are an estimated 10,200 wait staff and 3,690 bartender jobs.

The Rhode Island Hospitality Association came in with a litany of arguments, among them:

“Tipped employees wages have not remained stagnant. Since a tip is usually calculated based on the cost of the meal, every time menu prices increase, so does the wage of a tipped employee.” More: Raising the tipped wage to two-thirds of the already-approved $10.50 hourly rate in 2019 would raise it by 79.9 percent, from $3.89 to $7 an hour.

Industry math: every $1 increase in the minimum wage “is actually closer to $1.30 increase for the employer when you take into effect the increased taxes that must be paid on the wages.”

And finally: “Nobody in Rhode Island makes $3.89/hour.” On average, tipped workers make considerably more, the hospitality association told the lawmakers, citing a National Restaurant Association survey that indicated tipped employees, on average, make between $16 and $22 per hour.

The counterargument from the Economic Progress Institute, which advocates on behalf of low-income workers: “While employers are required by law to pay the difference between the tipped minimum and the regular minimum wage if the tips received are inadequate to close that gap, in practice, we know that enforcement of that requirement is difficult and inadequate.”

To advocates of paid leave, minimum-wage hikes and other “well-intended” legislation, Gregg’s Restaurant owner Bob Bacon said: “They act like a business is owned by a faceless, nameless entity. If they do realize there are real people running these businesses, we are portrayed as heartless, greedy, cruel, dishonest or clowns. … Let me tell you, I am a typical business owner.

“I’m not Walmart. I’m not McDonald’s. I’m not Amazon. I’m not Bank of America. … When mandated increases come to my business, it is a personal matter.” He ran through his math.

Others registering their opposition to any further minimum wage increases at this time included the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the R.I. Food Dealers Association, the Rhode Island Business Coalition, and the National Federation of Independent Business (“We need to be lowering costs to compete and to create jobs … not increasing them”).

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