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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Keeping RI's working poor poor

By Steve Ahlquist in Rhode Island’s Future

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Elizabeth Suever
When the Rhode Island General Assembly moves to pass the bills and budget articles that may raise the minimum wage from $9.60 to $10.50 this year, they will be met with fierce opposition from local businesses. 

The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, the Newport County Chamber of Commerce and the Rhode Island Hospitality Association represent businesses by paying lobbyists extremely well to keep the 78,000 people working for minimum wage as poor, desperate and hungry as possible.

The businesses represented by these groups are not interested in paying living wages to their employees, they are solely interested in exploiting workers for profits, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries paid to the lobbyists who represent their interests is money well spent considering how much these businesses will save when it comes time to issue payroll checks.

Elizabeth Suever works for the lobbying firm of Roberts Carroll Feldstein & Peirce and fronts for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce to the tune of $7,500 a month to her firm.

She argued at the State House, Tuesday, before the House Committee on Finance, that the businesses she represents are “somewhat in opposition” to Governor Gina Raimondo’s suggested minimum wage increase.

Suever argued that the minimum wage has already been increased several times in the last few years. She argued that more information is needed about the impacts of raising the minimum wage. 

Conversely, Suever argued that the recent improvements in the local economy and employment can’t be ascribed to the increase in the minimum wage because “correlation does not equal causation” and we don’t know how much better the economy might have been if we hadn’t raised the wage.

More studies are needed it seems, because as long as our State House is producing studies, they aren’t raising the minimum wage.

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Lenette Boisselle
Lenette Boisselle spoke to House Finance on behalf of two organizations: The Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce and the Rhode Island Hospitality Association

The lobbying firm Boisselle works for, Martiesian & Associates, gets two payments from the RI Hospitality Association of $1,875 per month and $625 per month. The Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce coughs up two payments of $2000 and $1000 per month to her firm for Boisselle’s services.

Boisselle, who was honest enough to state her full opposition to increasing the minimum wage, reiterated many of Suever’s points and added that businesses need consistency and reliability, before adding wryly that the only reliability we have in Rhode Island is that the minimum wage will go up roughly 5-9 percent every year. 

She expressed distaste at the idea that businesses have been forced to slightly increase compensation for their employees, passive-aggressively chastising the Representatives she was addressing.

Boisselle disputed the state’s facts, saying that 78,000 people working minimum wage jobs seemed a little high to her. Boisselle calculated that the increase in minimum wage Governor Raimondo has suggested will cost businesses $36 million a year, or $3 million a month.

Later, Boisselle suggested that implementing the wage would be difficult for businesses to comply with in October and suggested that businesses will need time to prepare for the increase. January of 2018 would be better. Of course, pushing the increase off three months would save her businesses $9 million dollars, enough to more than justify handsome lobbyist salaries.

Perhaps the most awful part of Boisselle’s short presentation was when she suggested that the minimum wage is so high right now that adults are taking jobs from teenagers. 

Boisselle’s solution to this imagined problem was to suggest that the General Assembly pass an “opportunity wage” which would allow businesses to pay teenagers less than the current minimum wage to do the same job an adult might do for more money.

Just writing a description of her suggestion makes me ill.

Erin Donovan-Boyle is the director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce and lists her compensation for lobbying as 5 percent of her salary. Like Suever, Donovan-Boyle took a softer approach, saying that her organization isn’t against a minimum wage, “we just want it to be thoughtful and predictable.”

Donovan-Boyle noted that the suggested increase in the minimum wage is 9.38 percent, even though the Consumer Price Index (CPI) only increased 1.4 percent. She would prefer these numbers were closer because, I suppose, everyone working for minimum wage should be forever kept at the same relative level of poverty.

Studies are needed, said Donovan-Boyle, (noticing a pattern yet?) and the increase will be burdensome on businesses. She also saw implementation issues with an October date, and hoped it could be pushed off to 2018, just like Boisselle.

These lobbyists are all reading out of the same anti-worker playbook. Suever joked that the Reps who have been around long enough have all heard her arguments before, whenever the issue of raising the minimum wage comes up.

Whenever there is a suggestion to raise the wage, the same people and same organizations come out and present their case. The arguments presented to our legislators are not based on economics or even common sense. The arguments are based on greed.

Businesses want to pay their employees as little as possible, but it would be bad for business to show up and advocate for anti-worker, inhumane and exploitative policies in person, so the businesses join trade associations that lobby for these awful anti-worker positions on their behalf.

This is the only reason businesses join chambers of commerce: To help rig the system against you.

Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member. and Twitter: @SteveAhlquist