It has been a delightful week away from Montpelier. The weather for Town Meeting day couldn’t have been lovelier and I am so thankful that the big storm held off until the following day.
Thanks to Brookline for starting at 9 AM, we were able to make the rounds and get to Athens, Grafton, and Windham before lunch. People were welcoming and it was good to see citizens making decisions about their town’s future in a thoughtful, deliberative way.
There were a number of topics that came up during the course of the day but one that was talked about in three towns, including outside the polls in Rockingham, was the minimum wage and raising it to $15 over the next few years. It was good to have these conversations because a lot of great points were made, pro and con, and it was done in a thoughtful, respectful manner regardless of point of view.
A common concern was the effect it would have on our small businesses. Many are struggling to get by and this might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. They might move across the river to New Hampshire or go out of business. A counter to that was that if we were paying our workers better, perhaps more young people would move to Vermont. Additionally, if workers had more money in their pockets they would be likely to spend it locally and might be able to afford some of the things that they’ve put off buying, thereby improving the economy and their quality of life.
The downside for merchants on the eastern side of the state is that many people go to New Hampshire to shop because there is no sales tax. However, given that we‘re approaching tax season it might be good to remind Vermonters that when you file, you should be declaring what you bought in New Hampshire and paying sales tax on it to the State of Vermont. The Legislature recently passed a decreased percentage on the blanket payment amount.
Another concern is the concept of the benefits cliff. Those who are low-income receive benefits such as fuel assistance, Medicaid, and what we used to call food stamps. If those folks earned more money, they might be bumped off of these programs, but not earn enough money to make up the difference. That would not be helpful in terms of promoting a stronger economy. The upside would be that if we could get people off of these benefits and earning their own way, the taxes that pay for all of these programs (many of them are federal) could be reduced.
Additionally, there was concern that if the minimum wage was raised, there would be an expectation that employees who were already being paid a higher wage because of merit or longevity should get more. This would drive up costs.
My understanding is that when the minimum wage was first created in 1938 under the Fair Labor Standards Act, it was set at a level so that one person could support a family of four on that income. The amount has increased from its original 25 cents per hour but it has not kept up with inflation and those trying to live on one minimum wage, especially if they have children, find it extremely difficult.
Another concept that was talked about during our discussions on Tuesday was that of scalability. Perhaps businesses that employ a certain number of people or meet other benchmarks would be expected to pay a higher minimum wage. Sixteen to eighteen years ago, I asked the Joint Fiscal Office (JFO) for information regarding the amount of money the State of Vermont spent to cover the employees of low-paying big box stores for things like health care. At the time, JFO estimated the figure to be $18 million and it seemed that this was a form of corporate welfare. At the same time, I was attending national and regional legislative conferences that were sponsored by these very same companies where they bragged about how much they gave to charity. My response was that I would prefer it if they would give their employees a living wage and other benefits for a good quality of life and take their tax write-offs as a cost of doing business rather than charitable contributions. That was met with a less than favorable reaction.
Perhaps, businesses with more than “x” number of employees that give more than “y” in charitable contributions should be asked to pay a higher wage that is more in line with what we consider “livable”. Smaller businesses could pay a lower minimum wage until they were more profitable knowing that better pay reduces staff turnover and engenders loyalty in their workforce.
I want to thank all of the people who engaged in this conversation and for this opportunity to sum it up. These are all questions, as well as many others, that will need to be considered as an increased minimum wage is discussed. That is how the legislative process works and, if done well, how good laws are made.
During the course of the legislative year, we get to hear from people doing good work in Vermont. One of those organizations is Salvation Farms based in Morrisville. Founded by Theresa Snow, their mission is “building increased resilience in Vermont’s food system through agricultural surplus management; driven to reduce food loss on farms, increase the use of locally grown foods, and foster an appreciation for Vermont’s agricultural heritage and future”.
Salvation Farms fulfills its mission, in part, by gleaning, which is an age old practice of going into the fields after the harvest and taking what is left. They have also established Vermont’s first surplus crop food hub in Winooski.
As a result of the work of Salvation Farms between 2015 and 2017, Vermont’s on-farm food loss has been reduced by 391,120 pounds. This has produced 1,173,360 servings of farm-fresh crops that have been distributed to local meal sites, food shelves, and other institutions. Another benefit is that they have provided work-readiness training to twelve underemployed Vermonters.
In November, Theresa Snow received the Ben and Jerry’s Local Hero Award, which is chosen and presented by Ben and Jerry’s employees. Despite all of her accomplishments, Theresa is somewhat shy about asking for help, which is what Salvation Farms runs on. To learn more about the work of Salvation Farms and potentially support them by volunteering or donating money, please contact them at 802-888-4360; PO Box 1174, Morrisville, VT, 05661; email@example.com; or go to www.salvationfarms.org – your contribution will be well used.