Opinion: Legislative inaction on wages hurts R.I. workers, businesses

Despite solid proposals to raise the state’s lowest wage, Rhode Island’s state budget looks set to take effect without even a modest increase. Gov. Gina M. Raimondo had proposed a 60 cent increase which would bring the state’s lowest paid workers from the current $10.50 to $11.10 per hour. The governor’s small increase was already somewhat out of step with the trend of states moving more boldly and enacting multi-year plans to make meaningful increases to lift low-wage workers out of poverty. But R.I. House of Representatives leaders scrapping even this increase is disastrous given the regional context.

With the recent passage in Connecticut of a $15 minimum wage bill, Rhode Island is now at a competitive disadvantage in the region. The Massachusetts minimum wage is already $12 an hour and on a predictable and steady path to $15 by January of 2023. Connecticut’s bill will bring their minimum to $11 in October and reach $15 by June 2023. This means in a few months, Rhode Island’s low-wage workers will be behind workers in all the neighboring states and quickly falling further behind. This wouldn’t be good news anywhere, but in a state as small as Rhode Island, workers can choose to cross the border, even to work at a fast food restaurant, for higher wages.

Some have suggested that the state House (the R.I. Senate recently passed a stand-alone bill to raise the minimum wage) wants to wait to raise the minimum wage until next year because it is a good election year issue. In one sense this is right; voters have shown again and again that they care about policies to benefit low wage workers (including paid sick days and paid family leave as well as a higher minimum wage) and reward candidates that prioritize them.

But waiting to raise wage is wrong. First, low wage workers actually need the raise and they need it now. The current minimum wage is far less than even a single adult needs to live on and a sizeable portion of minimum wage workers are actually trying to support families. Second, by waiting, we fall further behind and lose out on the opportunity to create a gradual, predictable schedule of increases. Businesses would be far better off with increases every year that get us to $15 an hour over time. They could plan and prepare. That is exactly what Massachusetts and Connecticut have done. Instead, Rhode Island is opting to be piecemeal and unpredictable, as well as trailing surrounding states. It is unjust to struggling workers and unfair to businesses too.

- Advertisement -

Beyond the impact on workers and businesses, legislators are missing the bigger point. Voters want legislators to take action on economic justice issues. Raising the minimum wage was integral to the platforms of the 2018 progressive candidates who took on conservative Democrats –  backed by Party leadership – and won. With elections coming up in 2020, punting on economic justice for one more year is a bad look. Legislative leaders say they want to keep Rhode Island competitive but by holding the state back on wages, they’re setting the state back overall and harming their own political futures.

Rhode Island Working Families and others have long advocated for a $15 an hour minimum wage, reached with predictable increases over a few years. The simplest and best way for lawmakers to invest in Rhode Island workers, families, and communities is to pass the $15  minimum wage bill (S508 / H5957). This gradual approach to reaching $15 was supported by a sizeable majority of Rhode Island voters even before it became the law in our neighboring states. Failing that, at the very least, the legislature should pass a one-year increase to invest in workers this year and keep them from falling further behind.

Georgia Hollister Isman is state director of the Rhode Island Working Families Party.