You are here

Equity for All in the Food System

Our food system encompasses the growers, the producers, the distributors, but also those in the service industry. For many of the people who serve us food all day, every day, putting food on their own tables is a challenge. In Rhode Island, food service workers earn a meager $2.89 an hour -- just 30% of Rhode Island’s minimum wage. Forced to rely on the generosity of strangers, much of the food Rhode Island tipped workers consume is obtained with state assistance programs like SNAP or WIC. In fact, tipped workers are twice as likely to receive food stamp benefits compared to the rest of the RI workforce and are 1.6 times as likely to live below the poverty line.

The sub minimum wage not only ensures that many tipped workers struggle for the basic necessities, but it also acts as legislated pay inequity for the thousands of women working in the restaurant industry. The facts are startling:

  • 73% of the 15,553 tipped restaurant workers in RI are women; 35% of those women are mothers
  • The median yearly income for a woman working as a tipped restaurant worker is $16,800; compared to men’s average of $25,000
  • The jobs women occupy in the industry, and especially women of color, offer very little stability (in income and scheduling) or room for improvement
  • 90% of women working in tipped restaurant positions have experienced sexual harassment on the job at the hands of owners, managers, customers, and/or other staff
  • Women working in sub minimum wage states are three times more likely to experience harassment or be told to “dress sexier” in order to earn tips

Restaurant Opportunities Centers RI (ROC RI) and Rhode Island’s tipped workers have partnered with labor unions and social justice groups as part of the national ONE FAIR WAGE movement to raise tipped wages to at least minimum wage and bring dignity to the restaurant industry. Raising wages to $9 an hour would generate over $150 million in economic stimulus for the state, ensure that the women working in this industry could rely on a steady wage, and free workers from enduring mistreatment in order to make a living.

Through proposed legislation, worker organizing, and community engagement we seek to improve conditions for all restaurant workers in the state and set an example for neighboring sub minimum wage states. Through the strength of our members, we have opened up a dialogue in the state about what it’s like to survive on tips alone and how Rhode Island can no longer afford to ignore the needs of those who are an integral part of our food system.

ROC Organizer Danielle Donnelly reflects on attending the New England Food Summit with Mileika Arroyo, a server at Denny’s and member of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United in CT: “Mileika and I had a great time at the Summit and it was an amazing opportunity for her to see how many people in New England are working toward a common goal that would improve her life and the lives of so many people in this region. It was especially powerful for me to see the change in her. During the summit, Mileika received an intimidating text message from her manager berating her for missing the staff meetings that were scheduled specifically on those days while her restaurant was closed for renovations. He told her that if she was a no-show on those two days then maybe she wouldn't be able to show up work the following week. Instead of breaking down, she told me that if he was trying to scare her it wasn't working and that if they retaliated she would unionize! There have been so many times during the fight for One Fair Wage in New England where I've seen my members come up against their bosses or face adversity in their personal lives where they could break under the pressure and I wouldn't blame them for it, but every single time they have come back stronger with more fire and tenacity and desire to win.” Read more about Mileika here.


Danielle Donnelly works with Restaurant Opportunities Centers as the New England organizer. Since graduating from UConn in 2014, Danielle has worked with CT Citizen Action Group, volunteered with CT's Fight for $15 fast food organizing campaign, served as Canvass Director on Marilyn Moore's campaign for State Senate, and has been organizing tipped restaurant workers to fight for One Fair Wage legislation in RI and CT.

Mike Araujo is the RI Organizer for ROC United. He has nearly two decades of experience with unions and labor organizing. Since joining ROC and starting up the RI affiliate in March of this year, Mike has worked to form the One Fair Wage coalition made up of more than a dozen labor unions and like-minded organizations to come together in the fight for fair wages, organized workers to speak out against unfair practices in their restaurants and the economic burden that making a sub-minimum wage puts on families in RI, and has successfully pushed to give RI tipped workers their first raise in over 20 years.