My Turn: Douglas Hall: R.I. needs more progressive policies

By Douglas Hall

Labor Day provides an opportunity to consider the working conditions, economic indicators and public policies that reflect and shape the experience of working Rhode Islanders. Rhode Islanders want to be part of an economy that lets them provide for their families, while contributing to safe and prosperous communities, with good schools, and vibrant public spaces such as Rhode Island’s beaches.

With the passage of earned paid sick days legislation, this year thousands fewer Rhode Islanders have to choose between a paycheck and staying home when they are sick or to care for a sick family member. Workers earning minimum wage are paid $10.10 per hour, inching closer to an adequate wage.

Rhode Island is a leader in family-friendly employment policies, such as the passage in 2013 of Temporary Caregiver Insurance, Rhode Island’s paid family leave program that provides up to four weeks of partial wage replacement for workers caring for a seriously ill family member or to bond with a newborn, adopted or foster child. For young parents and workers caring for aging parents, these provisions allow workers to contribute to Rhode Island’s economy and make their families a priority.

New investments in the Child Care Assistance Program, which provides early learning opportunities for infants and toddlers, the expansion of pre-K programs, and the decision to invest millions of dollars upgrading our school buildings, shows that policy makers understand the importance of investing in the people of Rhode Island.

Despite evidence of a sunnier economic climate in Rhode Island (such as unemployment rates at their lowest point since 2000, and the highest-ever employment numbers), there remain persistent storm clouds. Women working in Rhode Island continue to face disparities in pay, pointing to the need for policies to address the underlying causes of these disparities, including protections against unpredictable scheduling and provisions ensuring women are paid equally for “comparable work.”

Workers of color in Rhode Island also face disparities in pay. While Rhode Island’s overall median household income in 2016 was $60,596, Latino and Black households had median incomes of just $36,877 and $42,425 respectively. Policies that help families of all races and ethnicities prosper — such as a $15 per hour minimum wage — would help to close these gaps, since both women and workers of color are disproportionately concentrated in occupations that pay low wages.

We can help Rhode Island families who have been left behind by removing barriers to their success. Ensuring that all students graduate high school ready for college or career — with particular attention to English language learners — and investments and programs for adults who need skills to move up the job ladder would allow Rhode Island workers to more fully contribute to growing the Ocean State economy.

It’s time to look at our state through a new lens that focuses on its strengths and our people’s strengths. Policies that elevate the people of Rhode Island lay the foundation for a more prosperous future that allows Rhode Islanders to thrive. This Labor Day, most Rhode Island workers have emerged from the shadow cast by the Great Recession. Future smart choices can ensure that Labor Day 2019 and beyond is brighter still for working Rhode Islanders.

Douglas Hall is the director of economic and fiscal policy at the Economic Progress Institute.