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PROVIDENCE — House lawmakers on Tuesday heard arguments for and against a bill that would raise Rhode Island’s minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016 and then tie it to inflation starting in 2017.
Testifying before the House Labor Committee, organized labor and other supporters argued that the proposal would provide an economic boost to the state, which has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, at 9.1 percent as of December.
“If you put more money in people’s pockets, they spend, which is good for the economy,” said state Rep. David Bennett, a Warwick Democrat who introduced the proposal.
But opponents, including business groups and a tea party activist, said another increase in the minimum wage would hurt local companies and job seekers with the least experience or work skills.
“The higher the minimum wage goes, the harder it is going to be to hire people into the industry and let them move up the ladder,” said Lenette Boisselle, representing the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, an organization for hotels and restaurants. “We wish we could say go to $20 [an hour], but the reality is, you just can’t hire people in that environment.”
If approved, Bennett’s proposal would represent the third consecutive year state lawmakers have increased the minimum wage.
Rhode Island’s minimum wage rose from $7.40 an hour to $7.75 in 2013, then to $8 an hour this Jan. 1.
Bennett’s proposal calls for the wage to rise to $9 an hour by 2015, then to $10 an hour in 2016. It would be tied to inflation starting in 2017.
A separate bill, also heard Tuesday, would increase the wage to $9 an hour next year. That was introduced by state Rep. James McLaughlin, D-Cumberland. (Both bills were held for further study.)
At Tuesday’s hearing, Rhode Island AFL-CIO President George Nee noted that other states are poised to enact higher minimum wages.
Connecticut, for example, will raise its wage to $9 an hour next year. President Obama has also called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, which is the lowest wage that states can enact, to $9 an hour and automatically adjust it with inflation. (It is currently $7.25).
“There’s been a tremendous amount of talk in our country about income inequality,” Nee said. “You’re in a very unique position: instead of talking about it, you in this legislature have an opportunity to do something about it.”
But state Rep. Antonio Giarrusso, R-East Greenwich, wondered if there was a connection between states with high unemployment and those with high minimum wages.
“Last year, we were ranked number 49 in unemployment. We raised the minimum wage, and now we’re 50,” he said
Nee countered: “We’ve only had a minimum wage increase for about three weeks. So I don’t think you can correlate that.”
The AFL-CIO, which is an umbrella group for local labor unions, said Bennett’s proposal would directly affect about 65,000 workers. It would also raise worker pay by about $84 a week and add more than $77.7 million to the state’s gross domestic product, the union said.
The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, said in its written testimony that it has not taken a position on McLaughlin’s proposal of a $9-an-hour minimum wage, nor Bennett’s proposal for a $10 wage by 2016.
But the state’s largest business group said it was opposed to tying the minimum wage to inflation, as Bennett proposes.
The Rhode Island chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, in its written testimony, argued the state’s current wage gives it a “competitive advantage” over its neighbors.
Source: PHILIP MARCELO; Providence Journal<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />