It’s time for legislators to improve the lives of everyday Vermonters by passing legislation that ensures economic equality and sustainable local economies.
That was the message this week from Vermont workers, business owners and community leaders.
Workers, business owners, and legislators called for raising the minimum wage to a livable wage, enacting paid family and medical leave insurance, protecting the rights of workers on the job, providing college-free tuition, and expanding access to child care and training for family-wage jobs, as well as other policies that force too many Vermonters to live on too little to support themselves or their families.
On late Thursday, the Vermont House passed H. 107, creating a paid family and medical leave insurance program, by a sizable margin of 92-52 (with some legislators absent).
“When folks know that their needs can be met, that their rights are protected, and that there might even be some breathing room, then, and only then can we have thriving communities,” said Rep. Emilie Kornheiser (D-Brattleboro), a first-term lawmaker, in her opening remarks to the more than 50 people gathered in Room 10.
With legislative super majorities, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman said lawmakers would be rewarded for taking bold action on the economy and the climate — key takeaways he’s heard during a recent series of Town Halls sponsored by Rights & Democracy Education Fund.
“I have been going around the state and the turnout at these events has been strong as people are going out of their way to make sure we’re doing something in Montpelier that is creating an economy for all, and a climate economy for all today, but an economy and livable planet for all in the future,” said Lt. Gov. Zuckerman. “When we have the pressure to make good policy in this building come from the people we represent, then we should not wait. Because, if there is a two-year window to do bold things for working people and climate change – this is the time to do it.”
Workers who spoke at the event said it was imperative for legislators to increase the minimum wage and to not only protect workers’ rights to unionize, but remove barriers to making it happen more smoothly and efficiently.
“While I am currently working as a private French teacher, a bookseller and membership coordinator – my income is nowhere near what is needed to live in Central Vermont and to pay rent, food, heating and other basic needs,” said Elaine Stehel. “In this past month, I brought in about $1,100 despite working about 14 hours a day.”
Stehel added that an increased minimum wage to a livable wage will benefit older, college-educated working professionals as well as first-time workers and youth. And it will impact primarily women.
Damion Gilbert, a Burlington City employee and member of AFSCME Local 1343, said it was great to see so many organizations and allies joining together to demand that all working class Vermonters have access to livable wages, paid family medical leave, and especially a fair and democratic recognition process when working people choose to form a union.
“When implemented, card check would instead allow working people to more easily and more fairly come together and begin a collective bargaining process when such a unionization effort is supported by a majority of workers,” said Gilbert. “And here, by making the unionization process more democratic and fair, it is our expectation that more Vermonters will choose to organize into a union and will thereby be able to bargain for the social and economic justice that too many of our working families are yet to enjoy.”
Andy Sebranek, a service worker, urged legislators to be sure to include Vermont’s roughly 12,000 tipped workers in their discussions and to move toward One Fair Wage for all workers in Vermont.
“Including tipped workers in the discussion around raising the minimum wage is crucial,” Sebranek said. “We’re paid $5.39 and hour as a base wage. The tip itself? I see tips as going above and beyond, but when it comes to earning enough to get by we shouldn’t be relying on tips.”
Sebranek added that the median age of tipped workers in Vermont is above 30 and 80 percent are women.
Business owners, too, joined to stand in favor of raising the minimum wage and enacting a strong paid family insurance program.
“These two bills together will create a state where working vermonters can thrive–where all Vermonters can thrive. They are integral to building a stronger economy and healthy workforce,” said Jacquelyn Rieke, co-owner of Nutty Steph’s. “Our communities and economy benefit when workers are able make a livable wage and support themselves and their families. When the families have the resources to support themselves and care for their families we all benefit– especially business owners.”
Another topic covered was free public college tuition, which could help more Vermont high school graduates attend college and help to fill critical workforce shortages. Currently, 40 percent of graduates do not go on to college.
“Free tuition would allow us to tackle the nursing shortage that’s happening statewide. We could fund next generation of K-12 teaches. We could grow our green economy with new entrepreneurs,” said Professor Linda Olson of Castleton University. Olson is also Vice President of Higher Education, AFT VT. “Free tuition would not only allow them to graduate with less debt but it also means they could live and work in Vermont after graduation, which they often can’t do now. This is not only an investment in Vermont, but their own future.”
In closing, Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie (D-Hartford) pointed to a button on his jacket that he said would “not move from his attire”—it read “Remember Low Income Vermonters.”
“I believe that to the far reaches of my heart,” Rep. Christie said. “If we take care of the folks who are having the hardest time, we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’ll get done what we need to do.”
The event’s sponsoring organizations included: the legislative Working Vermonters Caucus, Vermont Raise the Wage Coalition, Vermont Interfaith Action, Vermont AFL-CIO, AFSCME Local 1343, AFT-Vermont, Vermont NEA, Rights & Democracy, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and Vermont State Employees Association.