Groups advocate for women’s economic justice

Bills address discrimination against women in workforce, sexual harassment

A coalition of advocacy groups gathered Wednesday at the Women’s Economic Justice Day conference to present their platform, which supports multiple bills that would help working women in Rhode Island. Guest speakers at the conference included women workers, advocates and the legislators sponsoring these bills.

The bills supported by the advocacy groups seek to address discrimination against women in the workforce by targeting issues of sexual harassment and wage disparity, Kelly Nevins, the event’s host and executive director of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island told The Herald. The groups aim to establish fair pay, increase the minimum wage, protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace and address childcare issues and education.

The bills would have a positive impact on working women in Rhode Island, Nevins said, which is “good for our economy and community as a whole.”

Alondra Estevez, a student at the University of Rhode Island, attended the event to show support for all of the proposals. If they were passed, it would create “a ripple effect” that would be most strongly felt by women of color and single mothers, she said. According to Kathy McCormick, a survivor of domestic violence and member of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the bills are necessary because women need to have enough income to feel “empowered to become independent.”

The goal of Wednesday’s event was “to share the stories of real people who would be impacted by these bills if they were passed,” Nevins said. Although similar events have been hosted in the past, this is the first Women’s Economic Justice Day event hosted by the coalition, which includes the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, the RI Working Families Party, the Economic Progress Institute, Our Revolution RI and General Teamsters Local 251.
The platform supported four bills that were heard Wednesday in the House Committee on Labor, including a proposal to increase the minimum wage for tipped workers. Sponsor Rep. Moira Walsh, D-Providence, argued that the bill would be beneficial for poor women in particular, because “12.8 percent of tipped workers live in poverty ,” and “69 percent of tipped workers are women.”

Female tipped workers disproportionately bring forth sexual harassment complaints, Senator Gayle Goldin D-3, a sponsor of a similar bill in the Senate, told The Herald. Maggie Keen, who works as a waitress, testified at both the House hearing and the Women’s Economic Justice Day event. Less reliance on tips would increase women’s sense of financial stability, which could prevent sexual harassment at work, she said. “I’ve heard coworkers say, ‘This guy’s being a sleaze, but I’ve got to be nice to him or he won’t leave a tip,’” Keen said. “I need to emphasize the stress of not knowing how much money you’re going to make (each) month.”

Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell D-Providence, who also spoke at the Women’s Economic Justice Day event, sponsored a bill that would raise the minimum wage for Providence city workers to $15 an hour by 2023. Ranglin-Vassel testified at the hearing that raising the minimum wage was “a matter of justice.”

The committee recommended that both bills be held for further study.