Rhode Island’s annual battle for increasing the minimum wage stacked against workers

Steve Ahlquist

I was late getting to room 212 at the Rhode Island State House, where the Senate Committee on Labor, chaired by Senator Paul Fogarty (Democrat, District 23, Burrillville, Glocester), was hearing a slate of bills to increase the minimum wage in Rhode Island. (See below for links to and descriptions of all three bills.) Outside the meeting room was Elizabeth Suever, lobbyist for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, who told me that the “room was crowded.”

“That’s okay,” I said, “I have a camera.”

She was right, the room was packed, but I squeezed my way in and pointed my camera at the woman speaking in favor of a $15 minimum wage. I then recorded the testimonies off the next 28 people who spoke out for and against raising the minimum wage in Rhode Island. (See below for all the videos) There were no other cameras in the room. The hearing wasn’t even being recorded on audio.

It was a shame I was late, because I had missed the testimony of Economist Douglas Hall, director of Economic and Fiscal Policy at the Economic Progress Institute, who always does an excellent job debunking the bad economic policies and flawed studies pushed out by people like John Simmons, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) or Dale Venturini, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association (RIHA).

Ever wonder why you don’t often see the minimum wage being discussed on Capitol Television? I do. When I ask, I’m told that not all the rooms are equipped with cameras. To which the obvious follow up question is: Why? One possible answer: Legislators and business owners don’t want their cozy relationships to be broadcast. Of course, I suggest this as a possible answer only.

Had no cameras been in the room, no more than 30 people would ever have heard the testimony of Bob Bacon, owner of Gregg’s Restaurants, a Rhode Island business institution.

“Now some in this body, some in this group, act like businesses are owned by faceless, nameless entities,” said Bacon. “If they do realize they’re real people, we’re portrayed as heartless, greedy, dishonest, etc.

“I’m not Walmart, I’m not McDonald’s, I’m not Bank of America and I’m not Electric Boat. I’m a Rhode Island resident, I’m your constituent, I’m your neighbor and for some of you, I’m your friend. [emphasis added] To me, these changes [in the minimum wage] have very personal meanings.”

In the event that minimum wage is increased, Bacon says, “There’s only one cost I can cut that I have the most control over, and that’s labor. And I could either cut people’s hours, or I can cut shifts. And that’s against my nature and against the best interests of my business, because I need people to provide service, but I also need to be able to pay the people I have.

“The other option of course is people say, ‘Well, just raise your prices.’ Okay. I need to increase sales three dollars to cover one dollar in costs. Because no matter what I do, when I sell you a product, I still got to pay for the food and labor. So two-thirds of that dollar is gone… So I have to find $1.8 million in sales, 1.8 million extra sales that I don’t have today in order to break even on a dollar increase in wage.

“I don’t know where I find it. I don’t know where I find extra traffic. That kind of guest traffic or that kind of income in a state where anybody with disposable income that can, has left! They’ve gone to South Carolina or Florida – They come back, they come back every two or three months every year, they come in, thank God they come in, but they don’t come in twelve months a year any more. Because they don’t live here anymore.

“And what we’re left with is a bunch of people, the guest population, many of them are on fixed incomes. You want to know what happens when I raise prices? Announce tomorrow that you’re going to tax social security benefits one percent and see what kind of outcry you get. I get the same thing when I raise chicken dinner one percent. I raise coffee one percent. I get the same kind of outcry, except for me, they can choose to change their buying habits.

“Do I think wages should never rise? No, that’d be crazy to think that. But I believe they should rise in a strong economy, based on the skill level and the experience of the workforce,” continued Bacon.

“Why do people want to harm a business model like mine?” asked Bacon, wrapping up. “Mine’s no different than many businesses in the state. We’re small, local owned businesses. Why do you want to harm me? I employ almost 500 people. Is that a bad thing for Rhode Island? I generate about a million and a half in sales tax every year. Is that a bad thing for Rhode Island?

“Please know that reckless and overly mandates that increase our cost of doing business at an unsustainable rate do harm my business and those of my peers,” concluded Bacon. “I’m not sure what the breaking point is for a little local business like mine, but I’m not as confident as I was a few years ago that I won’t find out.”

Bacon said that servers at Gregg’s Restaurants make an average of $22 an hour.

“While we’re hearing restaurant owners complaining about the struggle, we should also realize that they are spending a quarter of a million dollars on lobbying, valets and meals for legislators and the people and members of that organization,” said Michael Araujo, executive director of Rhode Island Jobs With Justice. “Workers don’t have that. They simply don’t. They don’t have million dollar lobbyists. They don’t have offices that are dedicated to doing that. What they have is each other, when they show up and when they can show up and take the time out to do that. What they have is their time. That’s all they’ve got. And when they do that [show up for legislative hearings] they lose their wages.”

See below for information on the “Annual Legislative Reception” that took place at the State House Library on the day the Senate heard testimony on minimum wage bills.

Here are all the people I managed to record in favor of raising the minimum wage to $15. Their arguments range from the practical to the spiritual. Deborah DeBare, from the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV), for instance, explained how the tipped minimum wage encourages sexual harassment. Reverend Brendan Curran, Associate Minister at the Barrington Congregational Churchexplained the spiritual argument for raising the minimum wage.

Here are all the people I managed to record who were opposed to increasing the minimum wage. More than half of those who spoke are servers at Sympatico Jamestown, all of whom spoke against eliminating the tipped minimum wage exception. This exception allows owners to pay serving staff $3.89 an hour. None of them seemed aware that eliminating the tipped minimum wage would not eliminate tips. Aside from the seven Sympatico Jamestown workers, who spoke to the committee while their boss, Sympatico Jamestown owner Amy Barclay was in the room and watching, no other restaurant employee spoke against raising the minimum wage.

Every legislator in Rhode Island received the above invitation. Free cocktails and top-notch hors d’oeurves were served. The library was made available to the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce for free, with only an insurance rider being necessary (available at the Rhode Island Department of Administration) because alcohol was being served. Some of the biggest companies in Rhode Island sponsored the event. This is a completely legal way for businesses, large and small, to curry favor with legislators.

Michael Araujo is right: Low-wage workers don’t have this.

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