State Senator Jeanine Calkin and State Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell have introduced bills in the General Assembly to raise the minimum wage in Rhode Island to $15. If passed, the minimum wage would rise from $9.60 to $11 per hour in 2018, and then by $1 each subsequent year until it reached $15 per hour in 2022, at which point the minimum wage would then be indexed to rise with inflation. Wages for tipped workers, who currently earn $3.39 per hour, would rise to $15 by 2026.
The Economic Progress Institute (EPI) estimates that the bill would help more than 78,000 workers in just the first year, adding more than $26.9 million to their collective spending power and boosting the state’s economy.
Minimum wage workers and supporters of a $15 minimum wage gathered at Jerry’s Beauty Salon. Jerry Tolbert, the owner of the salon, said, “I’ve worked at minimum wage before. I know you can’t sustain yourself, and you can’t support a family. I also know that when working people have more money in their pockets, the more money they are able to spend. Setting a wage people can actually get by on is going to mean so much to families and I strongly believe it will make a positive impact on local business as well. For example, it will improve the employee-employer relationships and trust. We have to come together as a body, as a State and take this step to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.”
Charles Jones, who has worked at Burger King for 18 years and only makes $9.65 per hour is a long time advocate for raising the minimum wage. He challenged Governor Gina Raimondo, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza to “come down from on high” and try living on his wages.
Tipped workers would see their wages increase from $3.39 to $5 per hour in 2018, and then an additional $1.25 per year until 2026 when it reaches $15 per hour. Erica Hammond, a server at Top of the Bay, said relying on tips for the majority of one’s income creates distinct vulnerabilities for servers. “I’m tired of biting my tongue when I’m sexually harassed by a customer. Right now, I can’t respond to demeaning behavior because I need the tip. It’s humiliating.”
Karen Baldwin and Shirley Lomba, home care professionals at The Arc of Blackstone Valley and Bannister House Nursing Home, also spoke about the need for a $15 minimum wage and about the connection between employee wellness and consumer service in their industry.
“I made $13 per hour in 1992 making jewelry, which is more than I earn today. When the jewelry factories shut down, I became a CNA. I love taking care of the elderly but the pay is not enough,” said home care professional Karen Baldwin.
“My coworkers and I are the working poor,” said Lomba. “Most of us only make a little over $11 per hour which leads to high turnover. Without consistency in staffing, our consumers don’t feel safe. $15 dollars per hour would help reduce turnover, which would improve the quality care for consumers and the lives of those who care for them.”
In Massachusetts, home care professionals will begin earning a $15 per hour starting wage next year due to a recent ‘Fight for $15 and a Union’ victory.
“Our minimum wage should be a living wage, and those who work 40 hours a week should not have to live in poverty,” said Senator Calkin. “It will help those struggling to make ends meet, and will help close the wage gap for women who make up the majority of minimum wage workers.”
“We’re fighting for our constituents. There are far too many people living in poverty in the state and the cost of living rises every year,” said Representative Ranglin-Vassell, then citing an EPI report, added, “If our minimum wage had kept up with increases in worker productivity, it would be close to $20 an hour. Why should we accept this downward trend? I understand the concerns some may have, but I am convinced it will have a positive impact on business. A $15 minimum wage will significantly increase workers’ spending power and increase their productivity and engagement at work. We must do better for the working and middle class in Rhode Island. We must be bold.”
The ‘Fight for $15 and a Union’ is a growing national movement. Recently, California, New York, and several major U.S. cities have passed legislation to move to a phased-in $15 per hour minimum wage. In 2013, workers at Wendy’s in Warwick went on strike with hundreds of other fast food workers throughout the country to demand $15 per hour. Massachusetts raised their minimum wage to $11 per hour last year and are collecting signatures to put an increase to $15 per hour on the ballot. Organizations supporting the Fight for $15 and a Union in Rhode Island include RI Working Families, SEIU 1199 New England and Jobs With Justice.
The Brookings Institute ranked Rhode Island and Providence as the fifth most unequal state and city in the country in terms of income distribution. In Providence, those in the bottom 20 percent of the income bracket made an average of only $12,795 in 2014. Fourteen percent of Rhode Island residents and 20 percent of children live in poverty. At the current minimum wage, a family of four with two working parents would need each parent to work 64 hours a week each to meet the family’s basic needs – essentials such as housing, food, transportation, health care, and child care.
Watch the entire meeting here: