Labor & Business

A $15 minimum wage is within Rhode Island’s grasp – But there’s more to do

“We were able to pass this bill because of the years and years of hard work of so many Rhode Islanders who have been advocating for economic justice,” said Representative Ranglin-Vassell. “And while I want to take this moment to thank them for their hard work and congratulate all the working people whose burdens will be lightened as this bill takes effect, we still have far to go. The ‘fight for $15’ has been going on for so long that $15 is not really a living wage anymore. $15 is the floor, not the ceiling, and we cannot and must not stop working to ensure that Rhode Islanders who work full time can make ends meet.”
Photo for A $15 minimum wage is within Rhode Island’s grasp – But there’s more to do

Published on May 11, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The Rhode Island House of Representatives passed Representative David Bennett (Democrat, District 20, Warwick, Cranston)’s version of the $15 minimum wage a week ago. The bill, H5130A, would increase the minimum wage to $12.25 on January 1, 2022; raise it to $13 on Jannuary 1, 2023; raise it to $14 on January 1, 2024; and finally to $15 on January 1, 2025. The legislation is now in the Rhode Island Senate, which in February passed companion legislation, S0001aa, sponsored by Senator Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence).

The bill could be on the desk of Governor Daniel McKee for his signature as early as next Tuesday.

The minimum wage in Rhode Island was last raised to $11.50 on October 1, 2020. In Massachusetts, the minimum wage is currently $13.50, but is scheduled to rise to $15 by January 1, 2023, two years faster than Rhode Island. Connecticut’s minimum wage goes to $13 in August, and is slated to rise to $15 on June 1, 2023, also two years faster than Rhode Island. Despite Rhode Island lagging behind, this is still a significant victory.

“At last, Rhode Island is on the path toward breaking the cycle of poverty for those at the bottom of the wage spectrum. Minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation over the decades, and our neighboring states have already taken this step toward making it closer to a living wage,” said Representative Bennett. “This legislation is a long time coming, the result of many years of advocacy by many on behalf of working people. I’m very grateful to my colleagues for moving this bill forward today for the sake of hardworking Rhode Islanders, many of whom do critical work in health care and other essential services, and who were asked to put their own lives at risk during the worst of the pandemic. Today, we are committing to a more livable wage for our constituents, because working families deserve the dignity of being able to support themselves on their wages.”

Though the House passed Representative Bennett’s bill, it was Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) who first ran on the platform of increasing the minimum wage to $15 when she ran for her office in 2015 against a powerful incumbent and won. Representative Ranglin-Vassell noted in a statement that $15 was needed then, in 2015, and that $15 by 2025 is not enough.

“We were able to pass this bill because of the years and years of hard work of so many Rhode Islanders who have been advocating for economic justice,” said Representative Ranglin-Vassell. “And while I want to take this moment to thank them for their hard work and congratulate all the working people whose burdens will be lightened as this bill takes effect, we still have far to go. The ‘fight for $15’ has been going on for so long that $15 is not really a living wage anymore. $15 is the floor, not the ceiling, and we cannot and must not stop working to ensure that Rhode Islanders who work full time can make ends meet.”

The bill would impact the lives of more than 112,000 Rhode Island workers, including many that make just over $15 an hour, or 21.6% of working people in Rhode Island. The groups highlighted how the bill would advance racial and gender justice in Rhode Island – women make up 61% of those who will get a raise, and almost 30% of Black workers and over 35% of Latinx workers would see their wages increase.

What the bill does not do is increase or eliminate the tipped minimum wage in Rhode Island, which currently sits at $3.89 an hour.

“…it’s important to recognize that people at the bottom of the wage scale, including tipped workers to whom this bill does not apply, will continue to struggle to support their families in a state where there is not a single community where a person working full time at $15 an hour can afford an average two-bedroom apartment,” noted Representative Ranglin-Vassell.

The roots of the tipped minimum wage, notes the Center for American Progress, is rooted in sexism and racism. “…when workers depend on tips for almost three-quarters of their income, the consequence is that customers’ whims can effectively control tipped workers’ earnings and livelihood. This power imbalance leaves women, workers of color, disabled workers, and other historically marginalized workers particularly vulnerable to economic precarity and other injustices in these jobs.”

The Rhode Island Working Families Party is holding an online celebration of the House and Senate passage of an eventual $15 minimum wage in Rhode Island on Thursday with Representative Ranglin-Vassell.

“A $15 minimum wage isn’t just a life-saving increase that would help over 112,000 workers meet their basic needs,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, New England Regional Director of the Working Families Party. “It’s a necessary step toward closing the pay gap, boosting the economy, and putting those hit hardest by the pandemic – especially women and people of color – at the center of Rhode Island’s recovery. This is a basic, but important step to care for the working folks keeping our economy running.”

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