“Rhode Island families need a $15 an hour minimum wage, or at the very least a clear and predictable path to getting there.“
$15 an hour minimum wage has come a long way. Although it can be hard to tell if you are just watching the Rhode Island legislature.
When workers first started advocating for a $15 living wage, it was a big, bold aspirational idea. In a few places, including Rhode Island, Democratic lawmakers had agreed to raise the wage incrementally, but most of the country had been stuck at the federal minimum wage. The idea of building a conversation about the minimum wage around what a person actually needs to survive (at least a single person) was revolutionary. In 2012, the highest state minimum wage was just over $9.00. Rhode Island was still at $7.40.
But the idea caught fire. It caught fire because of good organizing — some of it done by the Working Families Party and its allies in many states around the country. And it caught fire because it captured the imagination and basic sense of right and wrong of so many activists and voters. It turns out, to much of the country, the idea that no one who works full time should live in poverty is common sense and basic decency.
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Today, $15 an hour minimum wage is a completely mainstream idea in the Democatic Party. Eight states, including neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, have passed legislation for $15, and the number of cities and counties paying their workers $15 an hour is set to double this year. Every Presidential frontrunner has publicly endorsed a $15 minimum wage, and two-thirds of Americans are in favor of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. When we last polled Rhode Island voters on the issue the numbers were even higher here, and has probably only increased. Every single member of the Rhode Island delegation in Congress is a co-sponsor of the $15 an hour minimum wage bill federally.
And yet, in the past few weeks the House and the Senate, following the Governors lead, have taken bills that provided a path to $15 to stripped them of their long term goals, making them just $1 increases to the minimum wage.
Don’t get me wrong, a $1 an hour raise is a big deal if you are making $10.50 an hour as more than 25,000 Rhode Islanders are. And I appreciate the leadership of the legislators who are fighting to raise the bar on this issue, publicly or otherwise. Working Rhode Islanders count on lawmakers to continue moving the minimum wage towards a living wage, and this increase is certainly a step in the right direction.
But why not include a multi-year plan to get to $15 as workers in our neighboring states have?
Even $11.50 an hour is still well under what a single adult would need to meet their basic needs. And we know that many minimum wage workers are in fact raising families. The typical minimum wage earner is a woman in her 30s with some college education. And nearly 30% of Rhode Island’s children have a parent earning minimum wage. 48 percent of Black Rhode Islanders, 50 percent of Latinx and 34 percent of Asian Americans earn less than $15. Workers of color comprise 41 percent of all workers affected by a $15 minimum wage increase in the state.
Rhode Island families need a $15 an hour minimum wage, or at the very least a clear and predictable path to getting there.
But if lawmakers aren’t moved by the merits of the policy for their constituents, they should consider that the strength and stability of our economy also depends on it. As the minimum wage goes up in Massachusetts and Connecticut, we will start to lose desperately needed workers who support key sectors of the economy. By August of next year, less than a year after the $1 increase just vote on takes effect, the RI minimum wage will be $1.50 less than in CT and $2.00 less than in MA. Any low wage Rhode Island worker will be a short drive from a better paying job. That will be very bad news for anyone trying to hire a competent workforce to care for elders or for young children or to serve customers. Minimum wage workers keep our economy running; we need to pay them a competitive wage. And importantly, if we do, those extra wages flow right back into our communities, bolstering the local economy.
There is no good reason for the legislature not to support a clear and predictable path to $15 right now.
Despite the recent timid moves in the State House on minimum wage, support for $15 in Rhode Island is clearly growing. Again and again we’ve seen candidates who clearly articulate support for $15 win competitive races. Those new legislators in the past few years are changing the House and the Senate and we expect that they will continue to advocate for $15. Nevertheless, the state’s Democratic leaders seem out of touch with the trend. They ignore it at their own peril, I think.
Activists and community leaders I talk to have always been excited about a $15 an hour minimum wage. But recently, as the idea has become more and more mainstream in the Democratic Party and still our leaders shy away from it, I’ve started to hear a note of anger on this issue. It’s time. It’s past time, really.
At the Working Families Party, we know that the one good thing about anger is that it is a catalyst for organizing. That is what we will spend this legislative session doing – organizing constituents to make their expectations clear to lawmakers. They want, indeed they expect, a clear and predictable path to $15. And if they don’t get it, organizing works in elections too. I know from experience that voters reward elected officials who stand up for low wage workers, and they are frustrated at best with those who don’t. If you’d like to join us in organizing for $15. You can start by sending an email to your Representative and Senator here.