2015-05-21 / Front Page

Bill Seeks Waitstaff Pay Hike

By Tom Walsh

Despite apparent misgivings among business leaders, General Assembly lawmakers who support a bill increasing the $2.89 minimum hourly wage for tip-earning waitstaff believe that such a bill can be enacted this year.

The $2.89 base wage was set nearly 20 years ago when the minimum wage for other workers, now $9 in Rhode Island, was $4.45.

Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, said she will vote for the bill if it makes it to the House floor. “That’s a very long time,” she said. And, Carson continued, she would like to see an increase for tip-wage earners coupled with additional funding for tourism in Rhode Island. “My theory is that we should lift all the boats together,” she said.

She acknowledged that her stance on this issue might not be popular with the substantial restaurant community in Newport—the Newport County Chamber of Commerce has 116 restaurant members. “Something has to be done to raise these wages,” Carson said.

In the House, the so-called “tipped minimum wage” bill is currently with the chamber’s Labor Committee. A similar bill was also submitted in the Senate, where it is also with that body's Labor Committee.

Jody Sullivan, executive director of the Newport Chamber, said her organization has not taken a position on the bill. However, she added, “I have had numerous conversations with members in the restaurant community who are very concerned about it.” And, she noted, "I haven’t heard anyone say anything positive about it.”

Paul O’Reilly, president and CEO of the Newport Harbor Corporation that operates the Newport Restaurant Group, including such popular restaurants as The Mooring and 22 Bowen’s, declined to comment. “I haven’t had a chance to put a lot of thought into it,” he said.

Rep. John G. Edwards, D-Tiverton, a member of the House Labor Committee as well as House majority whip and, as such, an influential member of the chamber’s Democratic leadership, said the bill is "still being reviewed.

“The bill as it is written probably won’t pass,” Edwards said. “It’s a little radical.” He said controversial measures frequently take more than one legislative session before winning passage.

However, he quickly added, “I don’t think it’s dead. But I don’t think it will pass in its current form.”

The House bill was submitted by Rep. Aaron Regenburg, D-Providence, who represents the Mount Hope area of Providence. He said he remains hopeful that a compromise bill can be fashioned and enacted this year. “There seems to be a good amount of support in the House chamber for some sort of increase,” said Regenburg who, like Carson, is a first-term lawmaker. “Right now I don’t know what the final proposal will be, but I do have confidence that we can do something to help these people.”

As it now stands, the Regenburg bill would incrementally increase the current minimum wage paid to tipped workers until Jan. 1, 2020, when the tip-wage hourly rate would reach the current $9 per hour regular minimum wage.

Spurred by a national organization calling itself Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROCUNITED), the Rhode Island bill has the backing of its own coalition, “One Fair Wage.” The group is comprised of the state AFL-CIO, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, RI NOW, the Women’s Fund, Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island, Working RI, NAACP Providence Chapter, Brown Student Labor Alliance, and the Economic Progress Institute, among other organizations.

According to ROCUNITED:

. Ending the “subminimum” wage would provide Rhode Island with an economic stimulus of more than $133 million in 2015 as a result of higher wages.

. Seven states that have eliminated the subminimum wage “have higher per capita sales and higher job growth in the restaurant industry.”

. Tipped workers in Rhode Island now earn a median income of $14,087 annually.

. 32 percent of tipped workers in the state are parents.

. 44 percent of tipped-worker parents have children who qualify for free lunches.

At a contentious hearing on the bill in March, Sen. Gayle L. Goldin, D-Providence, who submitted the Senate bill on this topic, said, “Leaving a tip is no longer a way to thank someone for great service. It’s paying your server’s base salary, and nobody’s base salary should depend entirely on a customer’s mood.”

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