Fight for $15 in Rhode Island

Originally published by Katherine Gregg on Providence Journal.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The progressive wing of the Rhode Island Democratic Party renewed its fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage on Tuesday, at a State House press conference where advocates drew a straight line from gun violence, sexual exploitation — and other ills of modern-day society — to the failure to pay workers a “living wage.”

“All Rhode Island workers deserve a living wage,” said freshman Sen. Jeanine Calkin. At $10.10 an hour, “our current minimum wage falls way below what a single person needs … let alone for an entire family.”

The math: “The Economic Progress Institute estimates that a single adult needs $20,000 a year to meet basic needs, a single parent needs almost $53,000 and a two-parent family requires over $58,000 a year.”

And who are these people? “The typical minimum wage worker is 36 years old. She’s a woman, most likely a parent working a full-time job to support herself and her family. There’s about a 50 percent chance she’s black or Latina and she has some college experience. … Raising the wage would send a message to these women, we hear you,” said Calkin, D-Warwick.

“Some will say, ‘Let them pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,’” added Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, D-Providence. Her response: “You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you can’t even afford boots.”

Cheers went up repeatedly from the crowd gathered in the State House library for the rollout of the minimum-wage bill, and a second aimed at ending the pay-equity gap between men and women.

The legislation faces opposition, however.

Recalling her testimony last year on behalf of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, lobbyist Elizabeth Suever said: “We want to make sure whatever minimum wage the legislature sets in Rhode Island, it’s one that works for both workers and businesses so that we are not harming the business community’s ability to grow and expand in this state.”

Does the $15-an-hour minimum wage fit that definition? “I think what we need is an economic impact study to determine that.”

In 2017, the state’s lawmakers approved a two-step increase that raised Rhode Island’s minimum wage from from $9.60 an hour to $10.10 on New Year’s Day. On Jan. 1, 2019, the minimum wage goes up another notch, to $10.50 an hour.

The back-to-back wage hikes make Rhode Island one of 29 states that already require a higher minimum wage than that required by federal law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Rhode Island lawmakers were unwilling to go as far as the advocates of a $15-an-hour minimum wage had hoped. This year’s proposal would raise Rhode Island’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, in increments, by 2023. After that, the minimum wage would automatically rise with inflation, under their proposal.

A second bill in the advocates’ 2018 package would bar employers from asking job applicants their wage history, or paying men and women different salaries for comparable work.

Backers of the two bills include the Center for Justice, Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Economic Progress Institute, Jobs with Justice, Planned Parenthood, RI NOW, Rhode Island Community Food Bank, SEIU 1199, SEIU 32BJ, Teamsters Local 251, Women’s Fund of RI & Working Families, according to the media advisory.

In pre-session interviews in December, both House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello — and Gov. Gina Raimondo — said they did not expect an additional increase beyond what’s already in the budget.

On Tuesday, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio reiterated his “strong” support for the “gender pay-equity legislation,” saying “the gap that persists between the wages of men and women is unconscionable.”

He did not rule out, but did not embrace, the $15-an-hour proposal, saying — through a spokesman — that lawmakers need to “consider Rhode Island’s minimum wage in relation to our neighboring states in order to ensure that Rhode Island is competitive and not an outlier.”

The campaign is being led by the Rhode Island branch of After the November 2016 elections, the local chapter hailed victories by eight legislative candidates it had endorsed, including then-House Majority Leader John DeSimone’s challenger.