Burlington’s livable wage ordinance, a 17-year old lofty goal, has not lived up to its intentions or expectations. Started in 2001 to give city workers and contractors hired by the city a livable wage, the ordinance was most recently updated in 2014 when the city identified lax enforcement of the ordinance, while also slightly widening the number of employees affected by the ordinance, two steps in the right direction. Unfortunately oversight wouldn’t begin for atleast another 3 years, a gap that belies a recent article about Burlington cracking down on ordinance violators. The livable wage ordinance not only needs improvement so that Skinny Pancake (8+ locations!) and other service workers at the airport are paid a decent wage, but also needs to be updated to reflect skyrocketing housing costs, childcare costs, medical costs, and rising student debt among other rising costs of living.
Consider this: in 2009, when the city first included different wages for those with and without health benefits, the livable wage was $13.94/h ($29,000 a year) and $15.83/h ($33,000 a year) respectively. How does the city decide this number? It seems that the city uses the state calculations of a livable wage for two adults sharing a 2 bedroom apartment with no children, which results in lower hourly wages.
The current livable wage, 9 years later in 2018, is $14.24/h ($29,619 a year) with employer assisted health insurance, and $15.83/h ($32,926) without, a difference of only $3,300 a year. So the livable wage has gone up by a paltry thirty cents an hour over the course of 9 years, a yearly increase of 3/10 of 1%, while the livable wage without benefits has remained flat. On top of this, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, if those 2009 wages were tied to inflation they would $16.48/h and 18.71/h respectively in today’s dollars. (A high in 2007 dollars of $13.94 would equate to $17.19/h today for jobs without health benefits.) When we also consider that the cheapest plan on the health exchange in 2018 from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont costs $5,800 a year (with a prohibitively high deductible), even the difference in livable wages does not reflect the reality of current healthcare costs.
The good news is that on July 1st, 2018 the livable wage ordinance will move significantly upwards for the first time in nearly a decade, to $14.52/h ($30,200 a year) and $16.20/h ($33,700), with and without health benefits respectively, or a $1200 and $700 increase over 10 years. Unfortunately, even the higher of these two numbers does not reflect true cost of living in Burlington. A Redstone or Bissonnette 2 bedroom apartment costs around $1700 a month, and with utilities about about $11,000 a year per person (1 person per bedroom). For those rent prices to be considered affordable (spending no more than 30% of one’s pretaxed income on housing), livable wages would need to be a minimum of $17.80 an hour WITH benefits, and that’s not considering the livable wage for single parents, 2-parent households with multiple children, etc.
I know from personal experience that the current livable wage ends up being a sustenance wage for full-time workers. This year I was making about $16.20/h, the city’s livable wage without health benefits, and I had fairly generous health, sick, and vacation benefits. I don’t own a car, I split rent (over-crowd) with two other full-time working professionals in a 2-bedroom apartment close to downtown. Yet I still struggle to pay all my bills ( $300 a month in student loans – thanks UVM!), to go to the doctor or take care of my mental health in a timely fashion because I’m worried about how much I will have to spend out of pocket (thanks high deductibles). I try to save a few thousand dollars in case of an emergency, but as I near 30 years old I haven’t put away money for retirement in 6 years and would need to rely on loved ones if a single major accident occurred. It really stretches the meaning of the world ‘livable’.
It’s time for our livable wage ordinance to not only remove all exemptions, but for the wage to be updated to reflect the true cost of living in Burlington. The wage should reflect the intent of the ordinance, otherwise it will continue to fall far short of meet the needs of city workers:
(a) Income from full-time work should be sufficient to meet an individual’s basic needs;
(b) The City of Burlington is committed to ensuring that its employees have an opportunity for a decent quality of life and are compensated, and such that they are not dependent on public assistance, to meet their basic needs.
Is it a livable wage if you’re constantly stressed about money, don’t have a retirement, live in over-crowded apartments, and rely on multiple public and private organizations for financial assistance?