Legislature has opportunity to help Vermont workers next session — By Sen. Debbie Ingram

Op-Ed

Today, 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 working people, their families, and our communities.

The first measure is to gradually raise the minimum wage from $10 to $15 an hour by 2022, and the second is to initiate a family and medical leave insurance program.

The jobs problem in Vermont is not a lack of jobs; Vermont has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. The problem is that wages and benefits have stagnated.

Why is raising the minimum wage important enough to me to be a co-sponsor? First, because it positively impacts so many workers, many of whom are supporting families. Contrary to some people’s assumption that most workers who earn minimum wage are teenagers at a fast-food restaurant, the facts (according to the Joint Fiscal Office) are that their average age is 38, with almost half 40 or older. One in five is a parent and almost 60 percent are women. Most of those in Vermont work full-time as the primary breadwinner. And one in four has a bachelor’s degree!

A higher wage would help these people have the better quality of life that they deserve.

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.

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.

I was glad to learn how little gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 will raise prices. According to a study by Purdue University, raising the minimum wage to $15 will raise the price of a Big Mac from $3.99 to $4.17. What a great deal: pay 18 cents more so that the working people serving those Big Macs can make ends meet.

Other studies show that gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 will raise overall prices by less than a penny over five years. Would you pay that so that 87,000 working Vermonters can earn enough to support their families?

Finally, the more people who can make ends meet themselves, the fewer people who must rely on government assistance to care for their families. 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.

A good job also includes supporting you in taking care of your family — which is why I’m also sponsoring a new government insurance program called Family and Medical Leave Insurance, or FAMLI. 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, from eight to 12 weeks.

That way, people can afford to 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 working people in Vermont, create jobs, and help our communities thrive. Please help me to convince all legislators to support these two bills so that all working people in Vermont can care for and support their families.

Sen. Debbie Ingram, a Democrat from Williston, is one of Chittenden County’s six state senators.

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