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February 01, 2013

Livable Wage Ordinance Praised — But Not Debated — at Burlington Forum

Five supporters of Burlington's livable wage ordinance celebrated its successes and bemoaned its weaknesses during a Thursday evening forum at city hall sponsored by the Peace and Justice Center.

Two pioneering proponents of the 12-year-old ordinance — State Auditor Doug Hoffer and Vermont teachers' union organizer Emma Mulvaney-Stanak — were joined by City Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) and by Dan Holtz, owner of a Waitsfield cookie company that sets pay rates for its workers according to the state's separate (and lower) livable-wage formula. Nathan Suter, a Peace and Justice Center board member, moderated the discussion while also offering frequent comments of his own.

Absent from the event, which drew about 50 spectators, was anyone opposed to, or skeptical of, the livable-wage standard. Suter said that Benjy Adler, owner of a local restaurant that received a controversial exemption from the ordinance, had declined an invitation to take part. Executives of businesses outside the "social responsibility" circle had not been asked to attend, Suter added.

Narratives of the livable wage's back story consumed much of evening. Mulvaney-Stanak, who led a Peace and Justice Center campaign for adoption of the ordinance, explained it was intended as a response to "a fundamental breakdown in the U.S. economy." The federal minimum wage — currently set at $7.25 an hour and unchanged since 2009 — was seen as "no longer adequate to meet people's basic needs."

Hoffer, who said he was speaking as a private citizen and not as a state official, laid out some of the methodology he had used in producing a series of wonky studies in the 1990s that included calculations of what would constitute a livable wage.

Burlington's "livable" wage is presently $13.94 an hour for companies that offer health insurance and $17.71 for those that do not. The state's Joint Fiscal Office puts the livable wage for Vermont as a whole at $12.17 per hour. There is no corresponding law requiring employers outside Burlington to pay a livable wage. The state does mandate an hourly minimum wage that now stands at $8.60 — the third-highest in the country after Washington's $9.19 Oregon's $8.95.

Vermont's minimum wage automatically rises each year in synch with the inflation rate. This "indexing" mechanism adopted by the legislature is a by-product of the livable-wage campaign, Mulvaney-Stanak said.

Hoffer and Bushor noted that Burlington's standard enables a worker to avoid reliance on taxpayer-funded assistance programs but allows for only a tiny amount of discretionary income. It results in "a pretty slender budget," said Bushor, an original sponsor of the city's ordinance.

Paying a livable wage carries potential benefits for a business, suggested Holtz, co-owner of Liz Lovely Cookies. He said he and his wife, Liz Holtz, imbued their 10-year-old company with a social conscience in part because "I was a disgruntled employee wherever I worked." In guaranteeing its employees 52 weeks a year of 40 hours of livable wages, Liz Lovely promotes worker retention, which ultimately saves more money than the higher pay rate costs the business, Holtz said. The company avoids the expenses and reduced productivity that results from training new workers, he explained.

Holtz said he uses creative business practices to enable Liz Lovely to keep its retail prices at the same level as those of its competitors, who generally pay their workers less. And the Waitsfield enterprise isn't merely holding its own — it's grown from 10 workers to 16 in the past six months, Holtz noted.

Talk eventually turned to the case of Adler's Skinny Pancake creperie that last year won an livable-wage exemption for a set of three food outlets it is opening at the city-owned airport. TD Bank, a Canadian mega-corporation, was granted an exemption in 2010 during the tenure of Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss.

Bushor said she partly regretted her decision to support the Skinny Pancake's exemption. "I'm critical of myself," the 25-year council veteran confessed. She said she didn't realize that the exemption given to Adler's firm, which uses large quantities of Vermont products, will remain in force for 15 years — the length of the contract for the company's airport outlets.

"I also want local businesses to flourish," Bushor related. "I try to balance all of that."

She also pointed to "weaknesses in the law" pertaining to its coverage of contractors who do business with the city. Suter pointed out that the city attorney's office said it is unable to supply a list of contractors that do or do not comply with the livable-wage standard.

Mayor Miro Weinberger has instructed the city attorney to produce a report on the city's livable-wage policy. The review is due to be completed by the end of this month.

There's no political will outside of Burlington to advance the livable-wage cause, Hoffer lamented. In response to a question about the direction of the campaign, he said, "I'd like to see it move to the state level."

Suter offered some consolation to the panelists. "What you guys have done is to place this into the DNA of Vermont and Burlington in perpetuity," he declared.

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