January 19, 2018

Guest Column: Rallying for minimum wage, paid leave proposals

By Sen. Debbie Ingram

Too many Vermonters work hard and still can’t adequately support their families. During this upcoming legislative session, state leaders have the opportunity to enact two measures that will improve the lives of workers and their families.

One is to raise the minimum wage from the current $10 per hour to $15 per hour by 2022. This gradual increase would bring Vermont earners closer to being able to make ends meet. Having enough jobs isn’t the problem; we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. The problem is that wages have stagnated.

Why is this legislation important enough in my mind for me to be a co-sponsor? First, because it impacts so many workers in important life situations. Contrary to some people’s assumption that most workers who earn minimum wage are teenagers at fast food restaurants, the facts (according to the Joint Fiscal Office) characterize these earners as:

an average age of 38 years old

88 percent not teenagers

45 percent 40 years old or older

56 percent women

22 percent supporting children

62 percent working full-time, and of those, 55 percent supply their household’s primary income

25 percent having a Bachelor degree (in New England).

These hard-working folks obviously deserve a boost to have a decent quality of life.

Second, one sure way to address the lack of affordability of our basic necessities is to ensure that families have the resources to pay for them. Housing, for instance, is the single biggest expense facing most Vermonters. The “housing wage” – or per hour wage that a household must earn to afford to pay no more than 30 percent on their rent or mortgage and utilities – is $21.90 statewide, and $26.83 in Chittenden County, for a two-bedroom. This means that right now, even two adults, each making minimum wage, cannot afford adequate housing. Raising their wages would make that housing affordable.

The cost to businesses of raising their employees’ wages would mean that prices must be raised to some extent. But studies show that a 25 percent increase in wages can be paid for by a 4 percent increase in prices (see Purdue University 2015 study), so the benefit to providing families with higher income more than makes up for any increase in their household costs.

Third, putting money into the hands of those who will spend it on goods and services is simply sound economic policy. As Henry Ford is purported to have said: “I always pay my workers enough so that they can afford the cars they manufacture.”

Paying workers enough so that they can buy appliances, furniture and household items, as well as go out to eat and attend movies, theater and concerts, means that an estimated $240 million will be pumped into the Vermont economy, according to the Joint Fiscal Office study. This is as good for business owners as it is for workers.

Finally, the more people who can make ends meet themselves, the fewer people we have on government assistance programs. Surely this is not only a practical savings of actual dollars, but also a principle that we value — for people to have the dignity of paying their own way, rather than relying on outside support.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, initiating a new government insurance program called Family and Medical Leave Insurance, or FAMLI, would also help Vermonters to improve their ability to support their families. This program would require employers and employees to pay a minuscule (less than 1 percent) tax into a fund, which would then be used to pay workers a portion of their salary for an extended period of time, like eight to 12 weeks, so that they can stay home to welcome a new baby or provide care to a sick loved one or recuperate fully from a serious illness or accident. They would be guaranteed to be able to go back to their jobs, and their employer would not have to pay them while they are not able to work.

These two pieces of legislation are important to improve the lives of Vermont workers. And what’s good for our working families and individuals is good for our businesses and our government, too.

Please help me to convince all legislators to support these two boosts for Vermont workers.

Debbie Ingram is a first-term Senator representing Chittenden County and a former member of the Williston Selectboard.

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