Lawmakers consider a raise for the state’s tipped workers

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Lawmakers are considering whether to give thousands of restaurant employees, hotel housekeepers and other tipped workers in Rhode Island a raise.

Rep. Aaron Regunberg says that rate hasn’t increased in nearly 20 years and these workers face tremendous insecurity.

The Providence Democrat has introduced a bill to raise the hourly rate from $2.89 to $4.50 in 2016. It would reach $9 in 2019, and be comparable with the regular minimum wage in 2020.

“We know from evidence across the country that we can do this in a way that helps workers and doesn’t hurt businesses,” he said.

Seven states abolished the tipped wage. Service employees are paid at least the minimum wage before tips.

Most states allow businesses to pay tipped workers less than the state’s minimum wage as long as tips make up the difference.

New York state’s tipped minimum wage will go from $5 to $7.50 per hour on Dec. 31. The minimum wage for tipped workers in Massachusetts is also increasing.

Business groups have opposed these wage hikes, saying that increases lead to higher labor costs and force employers to cut jobs.

The House Committee on Labor held a hearing on the bill Thursday.

Bob Bacon, chairman of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, said Rhode Island restaurants would have to raise menu prices, reduce shifts and cut the payroll if the bill passes.

Bacon, who co-owns Gregg’s Restaurants, said his servers already make more than minimum wage with tips, and if they don’t, by law, he’d have to pay the difference.

“There isn’t an operator I know of that could accommodate these increases in the bottom line,” he said.

Oak Hill Tavern owner Brian Casey said the bill would harm a successful business model.

Rhode Island labor organizations, community groups and advocates for women have formed a “One Fair Wage” coalition to support the proposal. George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, said “economic justice” should apply to everyone.

Andy Posner, who founded the Capital Good Fund to offer financial services to low-income people, said many of the tipped workers he helps can’t save money or maintain good credit. Jenn Steinfeld, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, said raising the wages would help narrow the gender wage gap.

Kate Conroy, a 31-year-old mother, said her pay sometimes didn’t cover the cost of the babysitter when she worked as a bartender and server in Providence.

“The cost of living in this city rises but our pay doesn’t,” said Conroy, who left the industry to go back to school.

Nearly 70 percent of Rhode Island’s tipped workers are women, and they’re more likely than workers in other sectors to live in poverty and use food stamps, according to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which advocates for the nation’s restaurant workforce.

“The people who put food on our tables in restaurants often can’t put food on their tables at home,” said Meg Fosque, the nonprofit’s policy director.

Rhode Island also is considering raising the state’s minimum wage.

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