At one time they were opposing candidates in a hotly fought primary, but this year David Bennett and Erin Lynch teamed up to increase the state’s minimum wage – the first increase in five years.
Bennett, who lost the Democratic nomination to Lynch in a primary for Senate Dist. 31 in 2008 ran again in 2010 to defeat incumbent Al Gemma for the House Dist. 20 seat.
Bennett and Lynch sponsored twin bills in the House and Senate that raised the minimum hourly wage 5 percent, or $0.35. Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the law last week.
“It’s very important,” said Bennett in an interview earlier this week. “They haven’t had an increase since 2007. It will help the lowest earners.”
The 35-cent-per-hour increase amounts to $14 in a 40-hour workweek, an amount Bennett likens to going to Scarborough Beach for the day.
“Then you add gas, and food and drinks,” he said. “That’s half a day’s pay.”
Bennett said he heard from laborers who were concerned that minimum wage had stagnated five years ago. The laborers originally suggested cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for minimum wage, but Bennett didn’t think that would be practical in today’s economic climate.
During committee hearings, the Rhode Island Hospitality Association spoke out against COLAs, which they said would be a difficult burden for small businesses to bear.
Dale Venturini, president and CEO of the Hospitality Association, said she could neither support nor reject the way the law turned out.
“It’s hard for me to say,” she said. “Some members don’t like it, but that’s the process of negotiation. When you work for 650 people, there’s always going to be somebody who [disapproves.]”
Lynch and Bennett said they were mindful of both employees and employers when drafting the bill.
“It’s a modest increase,” said Lynch. “It’s not breaking the bank.”
Bennett said the sponsors of the bill settled on the 35 cents, or 5 percent, increase because it seemed like a moderate amount.
“We didn’t want to get shot down,” he said. “We don’t want to hurt small businesses either.”
Bennett said some contended that the wage hike would increase unemployment, but he disagrees.
“I don’t believe that,” he said. “Who else is going to do these jobs?”
In fact, Bennett thinks the hike could serve as a small economic boon; he says minimum wage earners often cannot afford to travel and are more likely to spend their money here in Rhode Island. Lynch agrees.
“It’s not like they’re going to take that extra $14 a week and go to the Bahamas,” she said. “With that money they may go to the beach or splurge at the market; something that they wouldn’t have normally done.”
Overall, Lynch said the bill was well received, and she did not receive much opposition.
“I didn’t get any emails or letters,” she said. “There was concern by some committee members.”
Those committee members argued that many minimum wage earners are teens working seasonal jobs, but Lynch said she believes many adults also work minimum wage jobs to help support their families.
“My concern is helping people who are trying to pay their bills,” she said.
Despite the 35-cent hourly increase, Rhode Island’s minimum wage is still less than some neighboring states.
Minimum wage in Maine is $7.50; $8 in Massachusetts; $8.25 in Connecticut and $8.46 in Vermont. New Hampshire is the only New England state to lag behind Rhode Island at $7.25, which is also the current federal minimum wage.
In states whose minimum wage differs from the federal rate, employees earn the higher hourly wage.
“Unemployment is on everyone’s minds,” said Lynch, who feels that the increase, especially in a state with high costs of living, is a move in the right direction.
“Is it a magic fix? No,” said Lynch. “But it’s a piece of the puzzle; a shot in the arm.”
Lynch believes the minimum wage increase is one of the many steps to rebuilding Rhode Island’s workforce and economy.
As for the future, Lynch said she would not be opposed to another increase next year, but it’s doubtful it will happen.
“There’s an overwhelming feeling that Rhode Island is not business friendly,” she said. “We don’t want to continuously change the ballgame [for business owners.]”
For Lynch and Bennett, increasing the minimum wage is about helping families working multiple jobs to make ends meet.
“I can focus on the needs of middle and lower class families that need help,” said Bennett. “If we don’t help them along, we’re going to stifle them. Some of them are trying to make a future for themselves, and some are just trying to survive.”