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RI POLITICS

House passes bill to boost Rhode Island’s minimum wage

The rate would rise from $11.50 to $15 per hour over four years

The Rhode Island State House.
The Rhode Island State House.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s minimum wage is headed for $15 per hour following Thursday’s 58-16 House vote in favor of legislation that boosts the rate in four steps over four years.

The bill, introduced by Representative David A. Bennett, would increase the minimum wage from $11.50 to $12.25 on Jan. 1, 2022; to $13 on Jan. 1, 2023; to $14 on Jan. 1, 2024; and to $15 on Jan. 1, 2025.

The legislation now goes to the Senate, which has already passed a companion bill introduced by Senator Ana B. Quezada, a Providence Democrat. Once one chamber passes the other chamber’s bill, it will go to Governor Daniel J. McKee to become law.

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“At last, Rhode Island is on the path toward breaking the cycle of poverty for those at the bottom of the wage spectrum,” Bennett, a Warwick Democrat, said in a statement. “Minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation over the decades, and our neighboring states have already taken this step toward making it closer to a living wage.”

In Massachusetts, the minimum wage is $13.50, but it’s scheduled to rise to $15 by Jan. 1, 2023. Connecticut’s minimum wage goes to $13 in August, and is scheduled to rise to $15 on June 1, 2023.

Georgia Hollister Isman, New England director for the Working Families Party, hailed the House vote, saying, “It has been a long time coming for this pathway to $15 per hour in Rhode Island.”

About 75,000 Rhode Islanders now make less than $15 an hour, and the legislation could end up triggering wage hikes directly or indirectly for about 112,000 residents, she said. “It’s a big deal,” she said.

Hollister Isman said minimum wage increases are supported by many voters, and many candidates ran for office vowing push for $15 an hour. “It’s incredibly popular politically,” she said.

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While some business groups oppose the legislation, Hollister Isman said the bill represented a compromise that slowly phases in the wage increases. “Small businesses should feel good that people will have money in their pockets to spend in the local economy, and they will have time to plan for the increases,” she said.

But the National Federation of Independent Business in Rhode Island said it was disappointed in the House vote.

In a statement, the group’s state director, Christopher Carlozzi, said that small businesses were hit hard by the pandemic and now must overcome another hurdle to avoid closing. “A $15 minimum wage will only serve to hinder job creation and Rhode Island’s overall economic recovery,” he said.

Carlozzi said state lawmakers are again making it more expensive to operate a business in Rhode Island. “Small businesses that experienced a significant drop in revenue over the last year due to state-mandated shutdowns and restrictions, will now face higher labor costs,” he said.

During the House floor debate, Representative Arthur J. Corvese, a North Providence Democrat, spoke in opposition to the bill, saying, “My concern is less about the size of the wage increase than it is the timing.”

As they emerge from devastation caused by pandemic, small and moderate-sized businesses are having trouble finding employees, and it could take a year or two before they “come back to life,” Corvese said. So now is not the time for the state to be “putting an additional burden to them,” he said.

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But Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat, spoke in favor of the bill, saying his single immigrant mother worked multiple minimum-wage jobs to pay the rent and meet daily expenses for his family. And he said the minimum wage increase would help more than 70,000 Rhode Islanders working in grocery stores, big box retailers, restaurants, and gas stations.

“We have heard somewhat fear-mongering rhetoric from special interests who claim that even incremental increases to the minimum wage will cause the economy to crash and businesses to shut down,” Morales said. “All those falsehoods are easily debunkable.”

None of the states that have passed legislation to get on a path to $15 an hour, including Connecticut and Massachusetts, have seen “a spike in unemployment” as a result, he said.

The House also approved passed a bill, sponsored by House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, that would repeal a law allowing employers to pay workers with disabilities below the minimum wage.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.