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$15 minimum wage bill passes R.I. House

Legislators expect bill to become law by late June

The Rhode Island House of Representatives passed legislation which would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, in a vote of 58 to 16 May 6.

The bill now moves to the Senate, which passed matching legislation in February. Either the House bill or the Senate’s companion will have to pass in the other’s chambers before making its way to Gov. Dan McKee’s desk to become law.

The legislation would raise the current $11.50 minimum wage in four stages, every January 1 from 2022 to 2025. These adjustments resemble those of Connecticut and Massachusetts, though both states will reach a $15 minimum wage by 2023, two years before the date proposed by the R.I. bill, State Representative David Bennett, who introduced the bill, told The Herald.

Democrat State Representative Edith Ajello was among those who argued on behalf of the bill. “I’m old enough to remember when the minimum wage actually bore some relationship to the cost of living, when someone working at the minimum wage could begin to think about supporting a family without needing to look for a second job or a third job,” she said during the floor debate May 6.

For State Sen. Ana Quezada, who introduced the corresponding bill in the Senate, the fight for a higher minimum wage is personal. After immigrating from the Dominican Republic in 1982, Quezada worked a minimum wage job, just as many of her constituents do, she said. “Many families are not making enough money to survive,” she told The Herald, adding that financial hardship forced many households, particularly in “neighborhoods of color … to keep working through the pandemic.”

The COVID-19 pandemic “has made more of my colleagues aware of frontline workers,” Ajello said. The focus on the pandemic’s impact on nursing home workers, who are traditionally paid low wages, has led to a “different resonance” around the issue of a $15 minimum wage, she said.

“It’s a little more real,” Ajello said.

Republican State Representative Patricia Morgan, who voted against the bill, said her opposition stemmed from concern over how it would impact small businesses. Morgan argued that an increase in the minimum wage could dissuade business owners from expanding in Rhode Island. She also worried that the increase in the cost of labor would increase costs for consumers in turn, she told The Herald, adding that she is not sure that Rhode Islanders would be “gaining anything” from the wage increase.

“We should really be worried about what (we can) do to make our economy welcoming to companies, businesses, so that they grow better jobs,” Morgan said, “so that if you start at the bottom, you don’t stay there for very long.”

Republican House Minority Leader Blake Filippi voted against the bill but acknowledged the legitimacy of both arguments for and against the bill. “The workers making $11.50 an hour that can't survive on it and the small businesses that can't afford the increase in the minimum wage” are both at risk of suffering, he said during the floor debate.

Representative Arthur Corvese, a Democrat from North Providence, also opposed the bill on the House floor. “My concern is less about the size of the wage increase than it is the timing,” he said in reference to the strain COVID-19 has put on the economy.

But Quezada believes that the minimum wage increase is necessary amidst the economic struggle and unemployment resulting from the pandemic. “People want to go back to work but they want to survive,” she said. People are “making more money unemployed than (they would be) going back to work,” Quezada added, referring to the unemployment benefits workers have received during the pandemic.

Ajello expects the bill to reach Gov. Dan McKee’s desk before late June – when the fiscal year ends. 

While she does not believe the Governor will veto the bill, she said that based on the House’s overwhelming support for the legislation, they would have enough votes to override a potential veto.

For Bennett, the minimum wage increase is, at its core, about helping people. He hopes and believes that Gov. McKee will share in that mission. “He’ll sign it if he’s truly for the people.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that State Rep. Arthur Corvese is a Republican. In fact, he is a Democrat. The Herald regrets the error.


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