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State to consider raising minimum wage

Senate Committee on Labor to vote on four bills addressing statewide income disparity

On March 14, a fight was taking place at the Rhode Island State House — the fight for higher pay. The State Senate Committee on Labor heard four bills yesterday intended to raise the minimum wage. The bills are part of R.I. Democrats’ Fair Shot Agenda, a legislative package that aims to address growing income disparity within the state.

The minimum wage in Rhode Island is currently $10.10 an hour for most workers and $3.89 an hour for workers receiving gratuities. The first bill, Senate Bill 2244, commonly referred to as “the fight for 15,” would raise the minimum wage for both regular and tipped workers to $15 an hour by 2022 and 2026, respectively. Sen. Jeanine Calkin, D-Warwick, is the primary sponsor of the bill.

“The fight for 15 bill is a great piece of legislature,” said Michael Araujo, executive director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, a standing coalition of labor unions, community organizations, students and faith groups. “It’s one that we’ve been working on for more than five years now,” he added, explaining that this slow progress can feel like the coalition is falling behind on its goal.

Jobs with Justice advocates on issues of work-based justice, immigration and civil rights. The organization recruited workers, particularly women and restaurant staff, to testify yesterday in favor of the bills.

Araujo said that while Jobs with Justice would be happy to see the minimum wage raised to $15 an hour, he prefers the second bill that was proposed at the State House yesterday. This legislation, Senate Bill 2247, would increase wages to $11 an hour by 2019 and $12 by 2020.

“I personally like that bill better because it allows us to build power around it more,” Araujo said. “The fight for 15 would block off renegotiating, re-engaging workers for about five years. A two-year cycle is better for union-building and collective bargaining.” Legislation is essential to progress, but the strongest impact comes from workers themselves pushing for collective agreements, he added.

But a flaw with this second bill is that it excludes tipped workers, Araujo said. This omission is significant because there are “23,000 tipped workers in Rhode Island, 80 percent of whom are women, more than half of whom are mothers. Forty percent of these mothers are sole providers for their households, so not including this vital, rapidly growing section is a huge oversight,” he said.

A third bill, sponsored by state Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence, focuses specifically on workers receiving gratuities. The bill would raise the tipped minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2022 and mandate that this wage be the same as the regular wage by 2023. Araujo said that he strongly supports this piece of legislation as well.

Maggie Kain, a waitress from Narragansett who testified in favor of the legislation, echoed the need for change. “Lawmakers need to present the fact that they care about workers and not just businesses,” she said.

She also pointed to a widening gulf between workers and politics. “There is a true belief that government has stopped working for (workers), … (who are) disengaged and negative about their upward mobility.”

Josh Block, press secretary for Gov. Gina Raimondo, said the governor is pushing to improve the lives of workers within the state. “Too many Rhode Islanders work full-time jobs and still struggle to make ends meet,” Block said.

In the past, Raimondo has been an advocate for minimum wage increases. During her tenure, the minimum wage has been raised from $8 an hour in 2014 to $10.10 an hour. Raimondo’s plan would increase the minimum wage to $10.50 in January, Block wrote in an email to The Herald.

Block did not comment on Raimondo’s position on the four bills proposed at the State House yesterday.

The bills will likely be voted on by the end of April, Araujo said. However, even if any of these pieces of legislation are passed, implementation poses another problem, he added. “Wage theft — not paying workers — is standard business practice,” he said. In his time with Rhode Island Jobs for Justice, Araujo estimates that “nearly every worker (who has approached the organization) has experienced real wage theft in the course of their week.”

Araujo emphasized the importance of unionizing and collective bargaining in response to this threat. “We can legislate the best versions of this stuff all day, and we could win real gains … but the real win is when workers are organized together and do the enforcement at the workplace level,” he said.


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