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Rhode Island lawmakers consider raising state's $9 hourly minimum wage to $10.10

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — Rhode Island lawmakers are considering raising the state's minimum wage again.

Rep. David Bennett has introduced a bill to raise the hourly minimum by $1.10 to $10.10 per hour. The increase would go into effect Jan. 1.

The Warwick Democrat successfully lobbied last year to raise the wage by $1 to $9 per hour. The higher wage went into effect at the start of this year and put Rhode Island on par with Massachusetts.

Gov. Gina Raimondo has said she favors a higher minimum wage.

The Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training estimates that 45,000 of the state's residents — or about 8 percent of the labor force — earn $9 an hour.

Bennett said it's hard for people to live on $9 per hour. He said if workers made more, they would spend more locally and stimulate the economy.

"Now is a good time to give them another boost in their wages," he said. "As we come out of the recession, they'll fare as well as everyone else."

The minimum wage in Connecticut and Vermont is $9.15 per hour, and Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont are planning future raises. Wages are lower in Maine and New Hampshire.

At a hearing on the bill Thursday, organizations representing small businesses, the hospitality and food industries, home health care and hospice agencies, and others opposed the bill, saying they couldn't afford the increase and it would be "bad for business."

"We should focus on job creation in Rhode Island and we think the best way to create jobs is to lower the cost of doing business," said Bill Vernon, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Steven Arthurs, president of the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association, said an increase would hinder the food industry's ability to expand and create full-time jobs.

Home health care and hospice agencies in the state are worried that many of their workers who make slightly more than the minimum wage would choose to work in other industries if they could make just as much in those jobs, said Nicholas Oliver, executive director of the Rhode Island Partnership for Home Care. Oliver said he reluctantly opposed the bill because the centers already are struggling with a high turnover rate and he fears some could close.

Some spoke in support of raising the minimum wage. The Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women supports the bill as a way to ensure women are equal participants in the economy. George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, thanked lawmakers for raising the minimum wage before and asked them to do so again.

"The more you can increase workers' wages and their purchasing power, it benefits the whole economy," he said.

Sen. Leonidas P. Raptakis, a Coventry Democrat, wants to raise the minimum wage, but not in the way Bennett proposed.

Raptakis said he's submitting a bill that would increase the minimum hourly wage annually beginning on Jan. 1, but those increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index. The bill also caps increases at 50 cents per year. Raptakis said he feels large increases could hurt businesses and young people entering the workforce, who businesses would be reluctant to hire at high rates.

Raptakis said he doesn't want the state's minimum wage to become "a runaway train."

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