Plight of Workers, Health Care a Major Concern Locally

Rhode Island’s current $9.60 minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has risen less than a dollar since 2000. For a larger image,  click here . (istock)

Rhode Island’s current $9.60 minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has risen less than a dollar since 2000. For a larger image, click here. (istock)

By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Everyone is wondering what’s next.

Planned Parenthood is working to ensure that Rhode Island women have the right to choose their reproductive futures, no matter what happens in Washington, D.C. Supporters of immigrants’ rights are lobbying at the Statehouse for drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. Speakers at the Day of Public Humanities at Brown University are making presentations about how to advocate for the arts and humanities in the “age of Trump.”

So it was no wonder that The Economic Progress Institute (EPI) chose “Our Path Around Federal Roadblocks” as the topic for its May 4 ninth Annual Policy and Budget Conference. And it’s no wonder that it drew an attentive audience of about 200 people to the downtown Marriott, including a number of state legislators and staff from the state’s congressional delegation.

Nobody minced words, about either workers’ rights or health care.

Gov. Gina Raimondo said, “I told the president that the ACA [Affordable Care Act] is working in Rhode Island. We’ll go down fighting before we let 100,000 people in Rhode Island lose their health insurance.”

Senate Finance Committee chairman William Conley, D-East Providence, hit harder, talking about the “Nantucket sleigh ride” the state is on as it considers “the regressive lunacy going on in Congress today.”

Addressing jobs and wages, Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, summarized the situation by saying that the Trump administration has demonstrated “active hostility to workers’ safety, job training and unemployment.”

Amy Rosenthal, director of external affairs and campaigns at Community Catalyst, joked that the House of Representatives might vote on its latest iteration of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) during her presentation: “It’s a very interesting day to be here. I’ve never had my slides go out of date in 24 hours.”

On a more serious note, she called the actions of the Trump administration and Republican Congress “a toxic mix as it relates to health care.”

The presentations were not, however, a paean to the good old days of the previous administration.

Workers get measly raise
Doug Hall, EPI’s director of economic and fiscal policy, reminded the audience that although the United States’ — and Rhode Island’s — economic situation has improved in recent years, there’s a lot of work to be done.

He cited the ongoing loss of manufacturing jobs, and the fact that women, African-Americans and Latinos continue to be paid significantly less than white males. He noted that 165,000 Rhode Island workers have no paid sick days, and that the current $9.60 minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has risen only 97 cents since 2000.

Shierholz elaborated on the realities facing U.S. workers. “Trump’s economic program resonated with voters because he said it was rigged against workers.”

A map of the United States color-coded by county, showed, she said, that people living “outside the cities in the south and the industrial belt did not get their jobs back. Trump tapped into this.”

She said wages are stagnant and median hourly income has stayed flat since 1973. But productivity, she noted, has grown by 70 percent over that period.

The problem?

Simple: “Wealth was going to the top. Inequality grew,” Shierholz said. “This is not the American Dream, that every generation does better than the previous one. ... Trump talked honestly about this, and it resonated.”

The issue resonated especially well with the 40 percent of Americans who, surveyed about their ability to respond to an unexpected $500 expense, said they didn’t have that much available.

Shierholz proposed what she called a “Worker First” agenda, which included giving low- and moderate-income earners bargaining power, improving worker protection standards, and taxing corporations and high-income Americans more heavily, among other things.

To make these ideas happen, she said individuals and organizations must acknowledge that the anxiety felt by many workers is real and that political, economic and social structural problems must be addressed. A starting point is to demonstrate Trump’s failure to act on his promises to workers and to develop “big, bold ideas” that could address the problems.

To wrap up the economic component of the conference, Rhode Island Working Families representative Abby Godino elaborated on the logic of paid sick days to protect the health of co-workers and customers.

“Employers say that people would abuse paid sick leave,” she said, “but others states don’t show such abuse.”

Shierholz reminded attendees of the importance of writing letters to the editor, local door-to-door campaigns and sending postcards to legislators.

Future of health care
Linda Katz, EPI’s policy director, began the session on health care by describing the way the ACA is organized and administered in Rhode Island.

“The percent of uninsured dropped from 11.6 percent to 4 percent,” she said, emphasizing the importance of the federal contribution to Medicaid expenses, which isn’t supposed to fall below 90 percent.

Rosenthal began her remarks by saying that “the ACA isn’t perfect, but it does a lot of good, with the uninsured in the U.S. going from 16 percent in 2010 to 8.6 percent in 2016.”

The new House bill, she said, indicates Trump’s promise not to cut entitlements is not to be trusted, since the GOP-backed bill eliminates individual and employer mandates, cuts subsidies in half, repeals the taxes that help fund the ACA, and converts programs from a per capita cap to block grants, among other things.

She noted some successes, though. “We changed the debate from repeal to repeal and replace.”

Moreover, she has been heartened by the success of state-based activists.

“People say you can never get activists to work on health care, but we’ve learned huge lessons about activism from the past five months,” Katz said. “We have seen an outpouring like never before.”

She noted that those upset with Trumpcare included far-left activists, chambers of commerce and hospitals.

After explaining the complexities of the political maneuver that might make Senate passage of a revised health-care system more feasible called “budget reconciliation,” which allows budget-related parts of a piece of legislation to be passed without the threat of a filibuster, she also acknowledged that the administration could in the meantime further weaken the ACA and Medicaid through administrative actions.

Karen Malcolm, of Rhode Island’s Protect Our Health Care Coalition, brought the discussion back to the broader point where it had begun, saying, “Ultimately, we will get through this. What the Trump administration is doing is a direct attack on working and marginalized people.”

Picking up on the activism theme that Rosenthal had raised, Malcolm reminded the audience of the importance of actions such as generating support for Rhode Island legislation that maintains an appropriate health-care system, and connecting with organizations involved in such work.

Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer who also works as an educational consultant in the Middle East, Africa and the United States. He blogs at