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Editorial & Opinion

Essential workers face stark choices, and Governor Raimondo refuses to help



I don’t have an authority via executive order to require private employers to tell them how they have to pay their employees,” said Governor Gina Raimondo. “That’s certainly not within the scope of my executive authority.

“Grocery store workers across the country are starting to test positive for, and die of, COVID-19,” said UpriseRI to Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo during one of her daily pandemic press conferences last week. “Do these workers, and all low-wage essential workers, deserve time and a half hazard pay and mandatory workplace safety, by executive order if need be?”

Governor Raimondo was measured in her response. She started by acknowledging “the fact that while so many people are out of work, laid off and struggling, there are many thousands of Rhode Islanders who have to go to work every day. Most especially healthcare workers, first responders, many people in state employment and cities and towns and grocery store workers.”

After thanking these essential workers, the governor sidestepped government’s role in guaranteeing these workers either pay increases or adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

“It is the responsibility of every employer to do everything they can in order to protect the health and safety of their employees,” said Raimondo. She then outlined what seems to be the limit of the law under her executive powers: “First and foremost, it means any employee who is sick, even a little bit, has to be sent home, cannot be forced to work period, at all, under any condition. And I want to remind everyone that by federal law you have a minimum of 10 days paid, sick leave…

Employers, continued Raimondo, “need to do everything that you can to space out your employees far enough, give them a hand sanitizer, ample opportunity to wash their hands. Nobody comes in when they’re sick and do everything that you can do to keep them safe.”

Can we please ask a favor?

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During the follow-up phone call immediately following the televised press conference, UpriseRI asked, “When it comes to store closures, decisions are made by executive order, but when it comes to employee pay, you seem to rely on employers and free markets. Why is is this?”

“I don’t have an authority via executive order to require private employers to tell them how they have to pay their employees,” said Raimondo. “That’s certainly not within the scope of my executive authority.”

Governor Raimondo has been consistent in her messaging. What our frontline employees get paid is a free market decision, period. Everything else in Rhode Island, including the fourth amendment of the United States Constitution, may be up for grabs, but employers, says the governor, maintain sole discretion as to how to pay their employees.

Governor Raimondo has been forceful in her insistence that front-line workers show up for work. If these workers fail to show up or quit their jobs because they believe that their employers are not supplying adequate PPE or establishing safe work policies, they will not be able to collect unemployment. Essentially, the only choice for essential workers is to work until they are sick, or until a family member gets sick. The stark choice: risk your family’s life or face economic ruin.

When asked last week by Richard Asinof of ConvergenceRI if she might be willing to make an emergency funding request through Commerce RI to increase the hourly wages of CNA (certified nursing assistant) workers in nursing homes, hospitals, and the home health agencies, Raimondo’s answer was to leave salary considerations to the hospitals and nursing homes that employ these frontline, essential workers.

“Soon the federal stimulus money will be made available to hospitals and other healthcare providers,” said Governor Raimondo. “And then, at that point, I would say that the individual institutions – healthcare institutions – will have to figure out how to use that additional capital to keep the lights on and keep folks employed and to have the PPE necessary. And I would just encourage each institution to do what they think is in the best interest of their employees and their patients.” [Emphasis mine]

Raimondo’s position, that she doesn’t have the authority to increase worker pay or mandate hazard pay, strangles a nascent movement to expand worker protections and safety during the pandemic.

“There are a huge number of essential workers in Rhode Island who are out on the front lines earning poverty wages,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, State Director of the Rhode Island Working Families Party, one of the groups advocating for these protections. “These are the workers who keep our state functioning — the people who deliver our meals, stock our grocery shelves, clean our hospitals and nursing homes, provide hands on care for people who need it — and they’re risking their safety every single day to keep us afloat.”

“The Governor indicated she supported an increase in the minimum wage in the past, but in this crisis, incremental increases for workers on those front lines just won’t cut it. We need to make sure every single frontline worker gets $15 an hour, sick days, paid family and medical leave and the personal protection they need to stay safe,” continued Hollister-Isman. “They deserve more than our gratitude — they deserve to be paid a living wage.”

One branch of state government that could increase worker wages is the Rhode Island General Assembly, who have the power to increase the minimum wage, and establish hazard pay, but Governor Raimondo and the leaders of the General Assembly, specifically Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, convenintly maintain that there is no reason to convene the General Assembly right now.

Words I wrote in March about the General Assembly’s refusal to convene seem even more pertinent today. See: An old law for a different time: We need the General Assembly, not the DEFB

As frontline workers continue to work in ever more dangerous environments, risking their lives and the lives of their families to deliver care to patients and groceries to the rest of us, the General Assembly is cowering at home, entertaining us with push-up challenges.

Some might call that a complete abdication of their duty, others cowardice.

In the meantime, frontline workers remain at the mercy of their employers, who, with a looming recession if not a full-blown economic depression blooming, will be unlikely to share their profits with employees. Only government action, of the kind Governor Raimondo is either unable – or more likely unwilling – to take, can mandate adequate pay and hazard pay for Rhode Island’s most vulnerable and, it can no longer be disputed, most essential workers.