Supporters, Opponents Square Off On Raising RI's $2.89 Sub-Minimum Wage

Mar 19, 2015

Bartender/server Kate Conroy calls the sub-minimum wage a poverty wage.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

A new coalition held a Statehouse news conference Thursday to press for an increase in the state’s $2.89 sub-minimum wage. Supporters call this a matter of fairness, since the sub-minimum wage hasn’t changed in 20 years. But the restaurant industry says higher wages would lead to higher food prices.

Thirty-one-year-old Kate Conroy said still struggling to get by after 10 years as a bartender and restaurant server in Providence. Conroy said the $2.89 sub-minimum wage is a poverty wage, not a living wage. She told her story of living and working in Providence, while speaking in front of labor activists, liberal state reps, and other supporters.

"The cost of living in this city rises, but our pay doesn’t, and it hasn’t in 20 years," Conroy said. "Unpredictable wages have many invisible problems. It’s much harder to get credit, and it’s hard to get an apartment when you don’t show reliable income. And there’s lots of unpredictability: the managers whose whim it is which shifts you will get."

The current minimum wage in Rhode Island is $9. If workers who rely on tips don’t get enough tips to reach that $9 threshold, their employers are supposed to make up the difference. But advocates for raising the $2.89 sub-minimum wage say that doesn’t always happen. Even worse, they say, the low sub-minimum wage leaves workers vulnerable to sexual harassment and other forms of exploitation.

Restaurant owners organized by the state’s hospitality association have a different view of the bill to gradually raise the sub-minimum wage. Under the proposal, the sub-minimum wage would increase each year, starting in January, until it’s at the same level as the minimum wage in 2020.

Bob Bacon is the co-owner of four Gregg’s restaurants in Rhode Island, and he came to the Statehouse to testify during a House Labor committee hearing. He thinks hiking the sub-minimum wage will have the opposite effect from what supporters expect. Bacon says that’s because higher wages would lead Gregg’s and other restaurants to raise food prices significantly.

"Whenever we’ve had to do anything of that nature, it causes a downturn in guest traffic," Bacon said. "Because some people just flat out can’t afford it, can’t come as often. So you have less customers, so there’d be less server hours. And I also think the public general would perceive a wage increase as a reason to change their tipping patterns, so I think they would tip less and eventually they would tip not at all." 

The bill to hike the sub-minimum wage is sponsored by state Representative Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence) and in the Senate by Senator Gayle Goldin (D-Providence). It was held for further study during the Labor Committee hearing Thursday.

Regunberg proved his organizing skills as a co-founder of the Providence Student Union activist group. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello says through his spokesman he’s keeping an open mind on the bill to hike the sub-minimum wage. "He realizes that the sub-minimum wage hasn’t been raised in many, many years and he is considering the arguments very carefully," said House spokesman Larry Berman in an email. "He is very impressed with the case being made by Rep. Regunberg."