Would you give up all food for a week for a $15 wage?
In Providence, Rhode Island, three hotel workers and a city councilwoman started a week-long hunger strike on Monday, protesting a state bill that would block their efforts to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The state Senate Finance Committee has passed a provision banning cities and towns from raising their minimum wages above the state level, which rose to $8 an hour at the beginning of the year and might be increased to $9. But $9 an hour is not high enough for Providence’s hotel workers, who had organized to get their city council to consider raising their wages to at least $15 an hour.
Santa Brito, a hotel housekeeper on hunger strike who spoke with ThinkProgress through an interpreter, said she’s making $10 an hour but still can’t get by. “I have to borrow money from my brothers and cousins just to pay off my bills and buy other things my son needs,” she said. “With the money I earn I can’t even pay off my mortgage.”
A $15 minimum wage, on the other hand, could make a big difference. It would allow Brito to pay her bills, buy necessities for her family, and even pay for her son to go to college.
For Ylenny Ferreras, also a hotel worker on hunger strike who has been organizing for the wage increase and spoke through an interpreter, that higher wage “would definitely change my life,” she said. “My kids can eat more. With that minimum wage I could buy a home for my children to have a better place to grow up.” But on her current $8 wage, it would be very difficult to buy her own home.
Mirjaam Parada, another hunger striker who is lucky enough to make $17 an hour at her hotel, made less in her last job when everyone’s pay was cut by 20 percent. “I know what it means to survive,” she said. Her rent is $800 a month, and that plus gas and food “is all the money” at a lower wage, she added.
A $15 wage would allow the hotel workers to “live with a little bit of respect and not have to be afraid for the next month about how to pay the bills,” Parada added.
The fight isn’t just about wage levels, however. The provision in the state budget blocking local minimum wage hikes has made them feel ignored and disenfranchised. “Politicians say you have the right to vote, it’s your responsibility to make sure your community is fine,” Parada said. But their voices aren’t being heard.
“We’ve been totally ignored by the statehouse,” Ferreras explained.
That lack of local control is what made City Councilwoman Shelby Maldonado join the hunger strike. “As an official, I feel like it’s a right being taken away,” she said. “City officials should be able to respond to the needs of their community, especially on the minimum wage.” She represents Central Falls, where she said “families are living paycheck to paycheck just trying to make ends meet. They’re asking for a fair minimum wage.”
Rhode Island is the latest place to see these sort of preemption measures that ban municipalities from raising their own wages. Oklahoma passed one in April and Kansas has a law that prevents local governments from requiring contractors to pay higher wages. A handful of mostly Republican states passed these kinds of laws about a decade ago, including Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Oregon, and Texas. But in Rhode Island, the state legislature is controlled by Democrats.
The hunger strike will take place outside of the Rhode Island statehouse and last for seven days. “If we need it to go longer, then we will,” Maldonado said.
“I want the governor to know we’re together and this is necessary, to have a $15 minimum wage,” Ferreras said. “That’s why I’m on this hunger strike.”