Where are all the workers?

Posted 6/2/21

Can summer happen if there aren't enough workers to serve lobster rolls, staff lifeguard stations and fill other jobs? That's a big concern in Rhode Island, where tourism is one of the state's biggest industries. Matt Weldon, director of the state

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Where are all the workers?


Can summer happen if there aren’t enough workers to serve lobster rolls, staff lifeguard stations and fill other jobs? That’s a big concern in Rhode Island, where tourism is one of the state’s biggest industries.

Matt Weldon, director of the state Department of Labor and Training, believes that the General Assembly’s recent passage of a bill meant to get more people back to work, by allowing unemployment claimants to retain UI benefits, will do the trick.

“I’ve been working in the Assembly in various capacities for 22 sessions – that’s one of the quickest bills that I remember passing,” Weldon said on Political Roundtable at The Public’s Radio last week. “And it passed for a good reason. We think it’s going to save the Unemployment Trust Fund money and it’s going to help people transition back into the workforce. You know, changing human behavior is hard. Making people know that it’s safe and it’s okay to go back to work is a difficult message to send, but we’re trying to send it every day.”

Weldon said DLT is monitoring the situation, and he notes how expanded federal benefits expire in early September – potentially leaving people in the lurch if they don’t get back to work. At the same time, he said, Rhode Island’s 6.3 percent unemployment rate is in line with the regional and national average. “We’re in the game right now – I think we’re going to stay on the front end of that curve.”

While some conservatives blame expanded unemployment benefits for the reluctance of some Americans to return to work, The New York Times’ David Leonhardt offers this perspective: “That so many are complaining about the situation is not a sign that something is wrong with the American economy. It is a sign that corporate executives have grown so accustomed to a low-wage economy that many believe anything else is unnatural.”

Gorbea’s early announcement

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea dropped the pretense about her gubernatorial ambitions by formally declaring her 2022 run last week. With a video release in English and Spanish, Gorbea became the first major candidate to announce her challenge for the job held by Gov. Dan McKee.

While this reveal came unusually early in the ’22 cycle, it signals that Gorbea is ramping up her fundraising and messaging in earnest. Jumping into the gubernatorial pool ahead of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza could offer some benefits, since both will seek campaign contributions from Latino sources outside Rhode Island. At the same time, McKee now has an intra-party foil with whom to test-drive his campaign messaging.

How to get Smith Hill’s attention

The aggressive legislative ground campaign waged last year by SEIU 1199NE – a significant factor in how former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello lost his Cranston state rep seat – did not go unnoticed on Smith Hill. That effort helps explain why the legislature moved quickly to approve a nursing home staffing bill and why Gov. Dan McKee signed it last week, over the strenuous objections of the nursing home industry.

George Floyd’s death, one year later

One year after the death of George Floyd, how much has changed in America? The issue of race and justice has a heightened profile, to be sure. In one example of that, news organizations like 60 Minutes and The New York Times have delved into such overlooked parts of American history as the Tulsa massacre of 1921.

At the same time, in Rhode Island, the outlook for making changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights – seen by critics as an obstacle to appropriate discipline for wayward officers – remains uncertain. During a Statehouse event marking the anniversary of Floyd’s death, state Sen. Tiara Mack (D-Providence) said she worries about losing momentum: “That's my biggest fear of this moment. Especially as the world starts to open up, and people kind of shake off the last year of being in isolation – that we lose that sense of urgency.”

Taking on gun violence

About 100 people gathered at Billy Taylor Park in Providence’s Mount Hope neighborhood last week to talk about next steps after a recent spike in shootings in Providence. The meeting highlighted the work of the Alternatives to Violence Project, which offers programs in a number of states.

It also made clear the unsettled feeling among many people in Providence. Ward 3 Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune said that as the mother of two Black children, “I fear every day. I fear the violence that’s within our communities. I fear my kid being stopped because of the color of his skin. I fear the systemic racism that exists within our communities. I live in a constant fear for my children’s life. It is unfair. It is unfair.”

Later in the week came news that the Nonviolence Institute was receiving a $500,000 donation from Brown University, the Rhode Island Foundation, and the Partnership for Rhode Island.

Related: Pawtucket and Central Falls announced new nonviolence programs meant to help keep young people safe, and the Nonviolence Institute is boosting its profile in CF.

Got transparency?

My colleague Lynn Arditi was denied access to a Zoom meeting of the state Equity Council on April 7. Shortly before that meeting, RI Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones sent an email notice to 39 council members in which she was listed as the meeting’s organizer. According to an email sent by Lynn to Attorney General Peter Neronha, she attempted to log in to the meeting, but the host of the meeting would not let her in. Lynn’s email continued: “I contacted several state communications officials for help and received a response from Governor McKee’s communications director Andrea R. Palagi. She denied my request to listen to the State Equity Council meeting, saying in an email that ‘these meetings have not been open to the public.’ I replied to Ms. Palagi, asking why the meeting would not be open to the public and stated that preventing a reporter from listening to the meeting appears to violate the state Open Meetings Act.” Lynn is pursing the complaint.

Whitehouse & ‘dark money’

Joe Biden’s ascent to the White House led U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse to end his long-running series of speeches on climate change. But now Whitehouse has a new bag – and it won’t come as a surprise.

In a statement, the senator’s office said his new series of speeches will expose “the scheme by right-wing donor interests to capture the U.S. Supreme Court and achieve through the Court’s power what they cannot through other branches of government. Whitehouse will trace the decades-long roots of the scheme, its development and funding, and its coming to fruition under Donald Trump with the installation of a six-justice right-wing majority on the Court.”

Of course, Whitehouse also benefits as an incumbent from his ability to raise millions of dollars. When I reported on the issue in 2019, the senator cited dark money and the threat from his conservative opponents as the reason why he needed to collect so much campaign cash.

Keeping local news alive

My former Phoenix colleague, Dan Kennedy, a super-smart media critic, offers this tease for his forthcoming book, with Ellen Clegg, on the future of local news: Despite the crisis facing newspapers and other media institutions, “innovative, independent local news organizations are serving their communities and providing them with the news and information citizens need to govern themselves in a democracy. Examples include nonprofit startups, news co-ops and even old-fashioned newspapers that are reinventing themselves under local leaders who bought them back from chain owners. We plan to report on these and other projects in a book tentatively titled ‘What Works: The Future of Local News,’ to be published by Beacon Press in the second half of 2023. We hope to show that there are alternatives to the decline of local news, and that entrepreneurial journalists are charting a path that others may follow.”

What’s in a name?

The name change for T.F. Green is a done deal on Smith Hill and awaiting Gov. McKee’s signature. The measure was sharply opposed by Deputy Speaker Charlene Lima (D-Cranston), who argued that changing the name to Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport will sow confusion and make the Ocean State a laughingstock in the aviation community. Supporters say the bill will bolster efforts to market Rhode Island.

Many travelers probably favor the superior ease of coming and going from T.F. Green compared to Boston’s Logan. Nonetheless, the Rhode Island Airport Corp., said in a news release, “Of the 376 primary mainland airports in the country as defined by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – airports servicing more than 10,000 passengers annually – only 32, including T. F. Green Airport, do not have the city, region or state in its name.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can follow him on Twitter

@IanDon. For a longer version of this column, visit www.thepublicsradio.org

politics, Donnis


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