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3/22/2017 Working Rhode Islanders, business owners and community leaders rally for $15 minimum wage
STATE HOUSE – A living wage is a right for employees and a path toward a more prosperous, livable state, said the sponsors of a bill to raise the minimum wages for hourly and tipped workers to $15 over the next several years, who were joined by working Rhode Islanders, business owners and community advocates at a rally today in support of the legislation.

The sponsors, Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell and Sen. Jeanine Calkin, said their main goal is to ensure that those working full-time at or near the minimum wage can at least afford the cost of living in Rhode Island.

“The Fight For $15 is so important to Rhode Island families who are struggling to make ends meet and live the American Dream. No one who works 40 hours per week should be living in poverty, and raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2022 would help lift up those working families and individuals who are working very hard, and deserve to be paid a fair, living wage,” said Senator Calkin (D-Dist. 30, Warwick). “In a time where the level of income inequality continues to grow, wages for workers remains low, even when productivity has increased. We must do all we can to support the middle class of Rhode Island, and a $15 minimum wage can help us do that.”

The rally, organized by the legislators in conjunction with Rhode Island Working Families, Rhode Island SEIU and Rhode Island Jobs With Justice, was held at Jerry’s Beauty Salon on Broad Street in Providence’s Elmwood neighborhood, amid mom-and-pop businesses and the apartment buildings that house many working families who scrape by earning wages at or near the minimum.

This community and many like it need the far-reaching improvements that would come with a higher minimum wage, said those speaking. With higher wages, quality of life goes up, stabilizing families and their community, they said. A 2016 White House study even linked higher minimum wages to reductions in crime. Higher wages mean working families are able to pay their rent to local landlords and buy the goods and services they need from local businesses, pumping money right back into local businesses, they said.

“Raising the minimum wage is good for families, good for communities and good for business,” said Representative Ranglin-Vassell (D-Dist. 5, Providence), “There’s a lot of conversation about how it would impact small businesses. I understand and appreciate the concerns of small businesses about the impact on payroll, but I am convinced it will have a positive impact on them because more people are going to have more money to spend in their community. Also, when workers are happy and satisfied in their jobs, it reduces their stress and their productivity goes up, and they use less sick time. It’s a win-win for all.”

Jeremiah A. Tolbert, owner of Jerry’s Beauty Salon, which served as the backdrop for the rally, said he understands the plight of working families, having worked at minimum wage himself.

“I strongly believe raising the minimum wage will mean a lot for working families, and will have a positive impact on local businesses as well. I know that when working people have more money in their pockets, the more money they are able to spend. It will also improve employer/employee relationships and trust. When workers are happy, productivity will be more effective,” he said. “Taking this step will also help to improve work-life balance, because families do not have to work three or four jobs. It enables them sustain their families and spend more time together. We have to come together as a state and take this step to raise minimum wage to $15 per hour.”

The legislation (2017-H 5595, 2017-S 0510) would gradually increase the hourly minimum wage from $9.60 to $15 by 2022, and would also gradually increase the hourly minimum wage for employees receiving gratuities, currently $3.89, to $15 by 2026.

From 2023 onward, the minimum wage would be linked to the cost of living or the consumer price index (or a successor index). The sponsors said that link, in addition to helping employees pay their rising bills, would also help businesses because it makes increases predictable.

While a $15 minimum wage for all would help families across the board, eliminating the much-lower base rate for tipped employees would end a tiered system that makes restaurant employees’ paychecks extremely volatile, subject to the whims of customers.

“I have talked to many tipped workers who don’t get paid very good tips, or sometimes have to put up with all kinds of abuse because they are afraid that if they don’t, they won’t get a tip. Or if they have to miss a day of work because they are sick, they lose out on those tips and struggle to pay their bills,” said Senator Calkin.

Charles Jones, an employee at a fast-food restaurant, and Erica Hammond, a server at a fine-dining restaurant, both spoke of the difficulty of making ends meet under those conditions.

Raising the minimum wage for tipped workers and all hourly workers also has a more profound effect for women, since women are overrepresented in the restaurant industry and other low-wage jobs, say proponents.

And in an age when many are turning to part-time work to bolster their income in the “gig economy,” to make up for wages that have not kept pace with inflation or because the jobs that had been their career have been eliminated, hourly wage workers are a much different group than they were years ago, said Grizzel Rodriguez, who works as a guest teacher.

“The minimum wage culture has risen in age, widened in terms of educational attainment, and spread to occupations well beyond fast food. Lifting the minimum wage to $15 will help a large percent of workers today, comprised of hotel housekeepers and home healthcare workers,” she said.

The event was emceed by Georgia Hollister-Isman of Rhode Island Working Families. Also speaking was Karen Baldwin, a direct support professional at ARC of Blackstone Valley and Shirley Lomba, a C.N.A./C.M.T. Despite their critical responsibilities and training requirements, many health care workers make little more than minimum wage in Rhode Island, and workers in that industry have been part of the “Fight for $15” effort in Rhode Island for years.

Speakers acknowledged that even a $15 minimum wage is not necessarily a living wage, since it depends on the size of the family the worker is supporting. According to the MIT wage calculator, a single adult supporting one child needs to make $24.51 an hour to afford living expenses in Rhode Island. But a $15 rate would be significant progress toward improving life for many, they said, and Rhode Island must take action.

“Rhode Island could be positioned to lead all the New England states. We should be bold and just do it. We don’t always have to follow,” said Representative Ranglin-Vassell. 

For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-1923