Women’s Economic Justice Platform introduced in the General Assembly

The Women’s Economic Justice platform, which includes raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023, guaranteeing fair pay for all workers, protecting Rhode Islanders from sexual harassment, ensuring access to affordable childcare, and improving paid family leave policies was introduced at the State House on Wednesday.

Kelly Nevins, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island hosted the event.

The minimum wage bill is sponsored by Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) and Senator Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence). Raising the state’s basement wage would affect 142,000 – more than one in four – Rhode Island workers.

The Fair Pay bill is sponsored by Senator Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence) and Representative Susan Donovan (Democrat, District 69, Bristol). The measure, which passed the Senate in 2018 before being bottled up in the House, would ban hiring and other practices that depress wages for women and people of color.

“Though I lived in a decent apartment, it was in a high crime area and because I was making minimum wage, I couldn’t afford anything else,” said Kathy McCormick, and domestic violence survivor and a member of SOAR (Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships). She and her infant son struggled to make ends meet, often deciding on whether to buy milk or gas for the car, or paying the rent or day care. “My son often went to school hungry…

“the minimum wage we have now is not a livable wage. Raising it to $15 an hour would make a difference to many people.”

The bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 would phase in the higher wage gradually, reaching its full value by 2023. Once the minimum wage reaches $15 in 2023, it would be indexed to inflation, so that its value doesn’t decline as the cost of living increases. The measure also phases out the unfair sub-minimum wage for tipped workers — who currently earn less than four dollars per hour — by 2027. Finally, the legislation clarifies and increases recourse options for employees who have been wrongly paid less than the minimum wage.

“While my scenario affords me a living wage, the same cannot be said about my co-workers,” said Brook Reeves, a health care worker and a member of Teamsters Local 251. “Working in a majority female workforce, healthcare workers often have childcare demands which add to their cost of living. I have personally sat with my coworkers to help them fill out applications for childcare subsidies and food stamps.”

“There are too many working people living in poverty and extreme poverty in the state while the cost of living rises every year,” said Representative Ranglin Vassell. “The fact is that the minimum wage has lost value and it’s time for all of us to ensure that workers see the value of their work in their paychecks. Raising the minimum wage will not only benefit workers but local businesses as people spend their higher wages right in their neighborhood. Raising the minimum wage is an economic and moral imperative. It is also a core democratic value. We must be bold and pass a $15 living wage.”

According to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, 142,000 Rhode Islanders would be affected by increase. Families would also benefit – 25 percent of minimum wage workers have children. 59 percent of Rhode Island’s minimum wage workers are women and on average, workers earning the basement wage bring home 52 percent of their family’s income. According to the Economic Progress Institute’s 2018 Rhode Island Standard of Need, a single worker needs to earn at least $13 per hour, or just over $27,000 per year, to meet basic needs; a single-parent family with two children needs an annual household income of close to $63,000.

“There are members of this industry that have chosen to make this their career and there is no reason that they should not receive the same benefits tht hourly workers receive,” said Maggie Kain, a tipped restaurant worker and member of Our Revolution RI. Kaine works with women who have worked as tipped servers in restaurants for decades. She feels she is lucky to work in a high end restaurant where she can make a good living.

Opponents of raising the tipped minimum wage “get waitresses to testify in committee hearings that average more than $15 an hour in tips. But those are exceptional restaurants. Those are not the average.”

A minimum wage increase benefits businesses that experience new consumer spending as workers have more money for goods and services. Increasing workers’ wages increases productivity and reduces recruitment costs as employees stay in jobs longer with better pay.

In Rhode Island, a woman working full time still makes approximately 86 cents to the dollar that her male counterpart makes. Women of color are even more deeply affected. Black women in Rhode Island make about 58 percent of what their white male counterparts make; for Latinas, the number is even lower—around 51 percent. On average, Rhode Island working women lose more than $7,000 per year to the wage gap—money desperately needed by working families.

Paula Corelli is a survivor of sexual and age discrimination at Newport Grand Casino. “I the past nine years I have worked side by side with a male colleague,” said Corelli. She was shocked to discover that over the course of those nine years her male colleague was making about $4000 more per year than she was, for the same work. Instead of addressing this disparity, Newport Grand hired a third person to work the same job as Corelli, had Corelli train her, and paid her $2000 more than Corelli was making.

“In 2019, women in our state are still subject to unequal treatment in the workplace, from hiring to pay,” said Senator Goldin. “It’s time to end this profound unfairness and grant women relief from the discrimination that keeps them and their families from moving ahead.”

Representative Teresa Tanzi (Democrat, District 34, Narragansett, South Kingstown) spoke about her efforts to pass bills that would help to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Sexual harassment often occurs along with other forms of sexual discrimination,” said Tanzi, “including pay discrimination and pregnancy discrimination. It also occurs at the intersection of identities, with many women experiencing harassment based on their race and sex combined.”

The Fair Pay Act helps to close the wage gap by clarifying and strengthening existing equal pay protections and by eliminating practices that perpetuate the pay gap. The measure: prohibits employers from paying workers differently, including by sex, race, or for other protected classes; makes it illegal to pay workers less than their white, male colleagues without a clearly documented difference in skills; clarifies what is comparable work; bans policies that prevent workers from discussing their pay; removes past salary history as a consideration; and requires disclosure of salary range to applicants and job holders.

“We’ve been told that complying with a new Fair Pay law would be too costly for employers, that it would open the floodgates to litigation, and that the equal pay law, as it exists, is enough,” said Representative Donovan. “It is not.”

Other measures in the Women’s Economic Justice platform include:

Paid Leave, sponsored by Representative Christopher Blazejewski (Democrat, District 2, Providence) and Senator Goldin. Rhode island is a leader in providing paid leave, passing a measure establishing Temporary Caregivers Insurance. This proposal will increase the current four weeks of paid leave at 60 percent of pay up to eight weeks and 75 percent of pay over three years.

Child Care (H5106/S0282), sponsored by Representative Grace Diaz (Democrat, District 11, Providence) and Senator Elizabeth Crowley (Democrat, District 16, Central Falls). The bill will ensure access to childcare by increasing provider reimbursement rates.

A series of Sexual Harassment bills developed out of the efforts of Tanzi’s study commission:

H5340 by Representative Carol Hagan McEntee (Democrat, District 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett)
H5341 and H5342 by Representative Evan Shanley (Democrat, District 24, Warwick)
H5343 by Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson (Democrat, District 21, Warwick)
H5344by Representative Tanzi and Senator Dawn Euer (Democrat, District 13, Newport, Jamestown)
H5345 and H5346 by Representative Tanzi
H5361 by Representative John Edwards (Democrat, District 70, Tiverton)
H5439 by Representative Vella-Wilkinson and Senator Goldin and S0330 by Senator Sandra Cano (Democrat, District 8, Pawtucket)
$15 For Workers Providing Services To Adults With Disabilities H5338/S0437: Sponsored by Representative Shanley and Senator Louis DiPalma (Democrat, District 12, Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton)

$15 For Health Care Workers (H5269/S0369): Sponsored by Representative Blazejewski and Senator Valerie Lawson (Democrat, District 14, East Providence, Pawtucket)

RI Works (H5617/S0262): Sponsored by Representative Michael Morin (Democrat, District 49, Woonsocket) and Senator Melissa Murray (Democrat, District 24, North Smithfield)

The Fight for $15 movement continues to grow with the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, New York, Washington, Oregon, and the District of Columbia and many cities having already enacted increases that will eventually reach $12 to $15 an hour. In 2017, Massachusetts passed a similar Fair Pay Act, joining cities and companies across the country who are enacting these policies.

The growing coalition supporting these bills includes: Center for Justice, Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Economic Progress Institute, Jobs with Justice, Planned Parenthood, RI NOW, Rhode Island Food Bank, SEIU 1199, SEIU 32BJ, Teamsters Local 251, Women’s Fund of Rhode Island and Working Families.