Progressive organizations unite to demand RI lawmakers rescue workers left out of stimulus bill

“We need the state government to step in and protect the countless working Rhode Islanders who need relief now.” Progressive organizations across the state have joined forces with workers, union members, and other advocacy groups to launch a new campaign pushing state lawmakers to take immediate action to protect the vulnerable Rhode Islanders left behind by the federal stimulus bill.

April 1, 2020, 10:01 am

By Uprise RI Staff

“We need the state government to step in and protect the countless working Rhode Islanders who need relief now.”

Progressive organizations across the state have joined forces with workers, union members, and other advocacy groups to launch a new campaign pushing state lawmakers to take immediate action to protect the vulnerable Rhode Islanders left behind by the federal stimulus bill. The coalition published an open letter calling on Governor Gina Raimondo, President Dominick Ruggerio and Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to “lead your colleagues in government to expand the resources available to all working people” in the state.

The stimulus package goes into effect tomorrow, but it’s still not enough to ensure working Rhode Islanders get the relief they need, the letter argues. Under the federal bill thousands of Rhode Islanders wouldn’t receive emergency paid sick, family and medical leave, and thousands of frontline workers will continue to earn poverty wages without hazard pay. Students who lose their jobs can’t qualify for cash relief, and still have to pay loans. Undocumented workers – who make up 3.6 percent of Rhode Island’s workforce – will receive no federal benefits.

“The federal government’s response has not gone far enough to protect workers. Our state response must continue to fill the gaps left by the federal stimulus response packages to support the Rhode Islanders who are losing their jobs and the disproportionately low-wage workers who are heroically keeping us fed and cared for at great risk to themselves,” reads the letter, which is signed by representatives of the Rhode Island Working Families Party, the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV), Planned Parenthood of Southern New England and the Economic Progress Institute (EPI), SEIU Local 32BJ, Carpenters Local Union 330, United Auto Workers, Region 9A, House of Hope, the Women’s Fund, Never Again Action and others

As Rhode Island leads the nation in unemployment claims, the advocates’ push for a comprehensive worker rescue plan outlines demands for paid sick, family and medical leave, unemployment insurance, direct cash aid, protections for frontline employees and suspending student loan and medical debt collection. The letter calls on the Governor to reconvene legislatures virtually, and to make the virtual legislative session open to the public.

The letter calls on the legislature to:

Expand Rhode Island’s paid sick and safe days law to cover ALL workers:

The federal government has moved to provide some limited sick time in this crisis. But those protections only apply to some businesses (businesses with 500 or more employees are exempt, and businesses smaller than 50 employees can apply for an exemption). Survivors of domestic violence are particularly vulnerable during this public health crisis and need specific economic protections, including immediate expanded access to paid sick and safe leave. Current Rhode Island law is 40 hours of paid sick time for only employers with 18 or more employees. The RI General Assembly should quickly pass expanded paid sick and safe leave legislation to:

  • Make 80 hours of paid sick time available to all workers immediately, regardless of employer size or time worked. 
  • Make sick time immediately available for any sick worker (even if they haven’t been tested for COVID-19 yet or recieved a doctor’s note), any worker caring for a sick family member or a dependant family member whose regular care, including childcare, is unavailable because of the crisis, and workers dealing with domestic violence.
  • Provide financial assistance to small businesses to cover these costs if not available under the federal stimulus.

Expand paid family and medical leave through TCI/TDI:

The Governor has already moved to allow Rhode Islanders to obtain Temporary Caregiver and Temporary Disability Insurance for COVID-19-related absences from work and waived the usual waiting period. These are crucial changes. But this program needs to be expanded even further to meet the scale of the crisis, with additional measures to:

  • Clarify that TCI is available for caregivers who cannot work because of school and childcare closures. 
  • Expand TCI from 4 weeks to 12 weeks. 
  • Raise the wage replacement for both TDI and TCI significantly, especially for those making less than three times the minimum wage. 
  • Make TDI and TCI available to self-employed, freelance, temporary, contract, and gig workers. 
  • Lift the cap on higher income workers paying into the system to help defray the cost of these expansions.

Expand and ensure access to social safety net programs:

Government services need to be easier to access in this crisis, even with many physical offices closed. That means we must:

  • Ensure that the application process for Medicaid, SNAP and RI Works is streamlined, including using ‘self attestation’ of eligibility criteria. Implement the ability to apply over the phone in addition to current on-line and mail processes. Suspend the work requirement for applications for RI Works. Track the number of individuals applying for these benefits and the time from application submission to eligibility determination and adjust processes as necessary to improve processing time. 
  • Policies have been adopted to keep people enrolled in Medicaid, SNAP and RI Works, including extending renewal times and time limits. Work requirements for most SNAP recipients have been lifted, and should be extended to individuals enrolled in SNAP E&T by implementing a blanket “good cause” exemption. For RI Works participants, staff (agency and vendor) should be deployed to support families through the crisis and ‘work requirements’ should be lifted. There should be particular attention paid to victims of domestic violence. The client-protective requirements currently in force for at least 30 days after it is over. 
  • Increase the benefit amount for Rhode Island Works recipients.

Provide direct cash assistance:

The federal government direct cash assistance plan leaves out some important Rhode Islanders. To ensure every worker is protected, we should act swiftly to: 

  • Use state funds to provide assistance to those workers who the federal plan leaves out including new workers, students, those who have recently been out of the workforce, and immigrants, regardless of status.

Support critical workers still on the job:

In this crisis, many low-wage workers are still on the job, putting themselves and their families at great risk. These frontline workers were never “unskilled” – they have always been essential, and they must be paid a living wage and given the support they need to keep our community afloat through this crisis. In order to adequately protect critical workers, the state of Rhode Island must: 

  • Classify grocery clerks, delivery drivers, warehouse stockers, pharmacy workers, gas station attendants, sanitation workers, construction workers, property service workers, health clinic workers, homecare workers, nursing home workers, and hospital staff as emergency workers.
  • Raise the minimum wage for all these frontline employees to $15 an hour immediately.
  • Require hazard pay for those risking infection to go to work.
  • Require all employers to provide appropriate personal protection and cleaning supplies.

Suspend collections:

In addition to well-articulated demands around rent and mortgage payments, other debt collection should be suspended without penalty during and for a time after the crisis. That means implementing the following bans statewide: 

  • Ban collections on student loans, and halt interest and fees until 6 months after the crisis is over. 
  • Ban collections on medical debt, and halt interest and fees until 6 months after the crisis is over. 

Pursue progressive funding measures:

There is no doubt that adequately supporting Rhode Islanders through this crisis will strain the state’s revenues. Countless Rhode Islanders are sacrificing to help their communities and neighbors – and Rhode Islanders who still draw substantial incomes can step up as well to ensure we have the resources necessary to get through this emergency. To fund these measures, we must act quickly to implement the following measures: 

  • Institute a new income tax on the wealthiest Rhode Islanders to help cover the cost of critical, life-saving measures. 
  • Maintain current revenue streams. For example, this is not the time to eliminate the car tax on more expensive vehicles. 

Meet virtually to make the necessary legislative changes:

Some of these changes will require legislative action. Legislative leaders need to figure out how to reconvene safely to achieve the following: 

  • Bring the legislature back into session with Representatives, Senators participating virtually.
  • Allow journalists and the public to view deliberations.
  • Provide opportunities for testimony and comment.

“We won’t let Congress leave any Rhode Islanders behind – not our working families, health workers, undocumented immigrants, or victims of deomestiv violence or sexual assault,” said Rhode Island Working Families Party State Director Georgia Hollister Isman. “We need the state government to step in and protect the countless working Rhode Islanders who need relief now.”

“It feels like I’m forced to choose between my health or a decent income,” said Lee Scheffey, a former food service worker from Pawtucket who signed the letter. “I got laid off from my job on March 16th and filed for unemployment March 17th. My claim is still being processed, and I have to start looking for other work. This means that I’ll very likely be working in close contact with other people who, like me, do not have the luxury of working from home. We need tangible government support immediately.”

The letter will go live as a petition for the public to sign on Wednesday morning. Leaders from the coalition are in conversation with lawmakers, labor unions and other advocacy groups who have agreed to back the petition.

The coalition is hosting a public Zoom call on Tuesday, April 7th at 6pm to outline the demands and share the campaign’s next steps.