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Friday, April 3, 2020

Open letter to Rhode Island leaders on COVID-19 response

All Rhode Islanders need rescue
COVID-19 and Your Rights | ACLU of Florida
To Governor Raimondo, President Ruggerio, and Speaker Mattiello:

In this pandemic, we must rely on one another to stay as safe as possible and keep the worst outcomes at bay. 

When our social safety net fails working families and other vulnerable Rhode Islanders, it undermines our effective response to this emergency, our economic recovery, and the health of all in our community.

The federal government’s response has not gone far enough to protect workers. Our state response must continue to fill the gaps left by the federal stimulus response packages to support the Rhode Islanders who are losing their jobs and the disproportionately low-wage workers who are heroically keeping us fed and cared for at great risk to themselves.

This is a crisis that affects everyone – but some Rhode Islanders are far more vulnerable to economic harm than others. Low-wage workers have the least ability to work from home. 

Many low-wage workers in service industries are losing their jobs, while others risk their health every day to keep us all fed and cared for. These workers are disproportionately women and people of color. 

Survivors of domestic violence are particularly vulnerable when isolated at home, especially when the economic supports they need to leave abusive relationships are in danger at this time.

We – the undersigned community groups, labor organizations, and advocates – call on you to lead your colleagues in government to expand the resources available to working people to protect themselves, their families and their communities in this emergency, through the above following administrative and legislative measures:

Expand Rhode Island’s paid sick and safe days law to cover ALL workers.

The federal government has moved to provide some limited sick time in this crisis. But those protections only apply to some businesses (businesses with 500 or more employees are exempt, and businesses smaller than 50 employees can apply for an exemption). 

Survivors of domestic violence are particularly vulnerable during this public health crisis and need specific economic protections, including immediate expanded access to paid sick and safe leave. 

Current Rhode Island law is 40 hours of paid sick time for only employers with 18 or more employees. The RI General Assembly should quickly pass expanded paid sick and safe leave legislation to:

  • Make 80 hours of paid sick time available to all workers immediately, regardless of employer size or time worked.
  • Make sick time immediately available for any sick worker (even if they haven’t been tested for COVID-19 yet or received a doctor’s note), any worker caring for a sick family member or a dependent family member whose regular care, including childcare, is unavailable because of the crisis, and workers dealing with domestic violence.
  • Provide financial assistance to small businesses to cover these costs if not available under the federal stimulus.
Expand paid family and medical leave through TCI/TDI.

The Governor has already moved to allow Rhode Islanders to obtain Temporary Caregiver and Temporary Disability Insurance for COVID-19-related absences from work and waived the usual waiting period. These are crucial changes. But this program needs to be expanded even further to meet the scale of the crisis, with additional measures to:

  • Clarify that TCI is available for caregivers who cannot work because of school and childcare closures.
  • Expand TCI from 4 weeks to 12 weeks.
  • Raise the wage replacement for both TDI and TCI significantly, especially for those making less than three times the minimum wage.
  • Make TDI and TCI available to self-employed, freelance, temporary, contract, and gig workers.
  • Lift the cap on higher income workers paying into the system to help defray the cost of these expansions.
Expand Unemployment Insurance.

Thousands of Rhode Islanders are already out of work. They should receive robust support from Unemployment Insurance. In addition to federal expansions, the state should make sure UI really works for all those in our community by taking immediate action to:

  • Fully implement unemployment insurance for those who are self-employed, freelancers, temporary, contract, and gig workers.
  • Use state funds to provide UI-type benefits to all workers, regardless of immigrantion status and others who lose work but are not eligible for federal benefits.
  • Make unemployment benefits available to those who have to leave a job because of domestic or sexual violence, even if they do not have an active restraining order or police report.
Expand and ensure access to social safety net programs.

Government services need to be easier to access in this crisis, even with many physical offices closed. 
That means we must:

  • Ensure that the application process for Medicaid, SNAP and RI Works is streamlined, including using ‘self attestation’ of eligibility criteria. Implement the ability to apply over the phone in addition to current on-line and mail processes.
  • Suspend the work requirement for applications for RI Works. Track the number of individuals applying for these benefits and the time from application submission to eligibility determination and adjust processes as necessary to improve processing time.
  • Policies have been adopted to keep people enrolled in Medicaid, SNAP and RI Works, including extending renewal times and time limits. Work requirements for most SNAP recipients have been lifted, and should be extended to individuals enrolled in SNAP E&T by implementing a blanket “good cause” exemption. For RI Works participants, staff (agency and vendor) should be deployed to support families through the crisis and ‘work requirements’ should be lifted. There should be particular attention paid to victims of domestic violence. The client-protective requirements currently in force should be kept for at least 30 days after it is over.
  • Increase the benefit amount for Rhode Island Works recipients.
Provide direct cash assistance

The federal government direct cash assistance plan leaves out some important Rhode Islanders. To ensure every worker is protected, we should act swiftly to:

  • Use state funds to provide assistance to those workers who the federal plan leaves out including new workers, students, those who have recently been out of the workforce, and immigrants, regardless of status.
Support critical workers still on the job.

In this crisis, many low-wage workers are still on the job, putting themselves and their families at great risk. These frontline workers were never “unskilled” – they have always been essential, and they must be paid a living wage and given the support they need to keep our community afloat through this crisis. 

In order to adequately protect critical workers, the state of Rhode Island must:

  • Classify grocery clerks, delivery drivers, warehouse stockers, pharmacy workers, gas station attendants, sanitation workers, construction workers, property service workers, health clinic workers, homecare workers, nursing home workers, and hospital staff as emergency workers.
  • Raise the minimum wage for all these frontline employees to $15 an hour immediately.
  • Require hazard pay for those risking infection to go to work.
  • Require all employers to provide appropriate personal protection and cleaning supplies.
Suspend collections.

In addition to well-articulated demands around rent and mortgage payments, other debt collection should be suspended without penalty during and for a time after the crisis. That means implementing the following bans statewide:

  • Ban collections on student loans, and halt interest and fees until 6 months after the crisis is over.
  • Ban collections on medical debt, and halt interest and fees until 6 months after the crisis is over.
Pursue progressive funding measures.

There is no doubt that adequately supporting Rhode Islanders through this crisis will strain the state’s revenues. Countless Rhode Islanders are sacrificing to help their communities and neighbors – and Rhode Islanders who still draw substantial incomes can step up as well to ensure we have the resources necessary to get through this emergency. 

To fund these measures, we must act quickly to implement the following measures:

  • Institute a new income tax on the wealthiest Rhode Islanders to help cover the cost of critical, life-saving measures.
  • Maintain current revenue streams. For example, this is not the time to eliminate the car tax on more expensive vehicles.
Meet virtually to make the necessary legislative changes.

Some of these changes will require legislative action. Legislative leaders need to figure out how to reconvene safely to achieve the following:

  • Bring the legislature back into session with Representatives, Senators participating virtually.
  • Allow journalists and the public to view deliberations.
  • Provide opportunities for testimony and comment.
The choices we make during this crisis are a true reflection of who we are as a state and the values we live by. Let’s use our present difficulties as a springboard to creating long-lasting positive change that values all workers, all families and all Rhode Islanders.

Catarina Lorenzo, Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance (AMOR)
Rachel Flum, Economic Progress Institute
Camilo Viveiros, George Wiley Center
Laura Jaworski, MSW Executive Director, House of Hope CDC
Housing Opportunities For People Everywhere
Never Again Action
Craig O’Connor, Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island
Tonya Harris, Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Georgia Hollister Isman, Rhode Island Working Families Party
Roxana Rivera, Vice-President, SEIU, Local 32BJ
Nicole O’Loughlin, Rhode Island SEIU State Council
Kelly Nevins, Women’s Fund of Rhode Island