Burlington’s Livable Wage Ordinance Needs Major Updating

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?

Town Meeting Day Brings A Toothless Housing Ballot Item

Last March, as cofounder of Fight for 15 Burlington, I helped city councilors put a nonbinding question on the ballot. At the time, I was incredibly proud – being able to affect such change, to help bring a better living standard to so many of my friends, coworkers, and neighbors. I was told that while the ballot question was incredibly vague and had no enforcement, it would help move the conversation forward on the state level.

Those arguments sounded good – and nearly every councilor voted for it, except the Republican and Republican/Democrat. It helped not only the progressive (small p) city councilors running for election and reelection, but even some of the Democratic councilors. And why not support it? No one had to make any concrete plans or promises, they didn’t have to take any political risks. Even Mayor Weinberger, although at first opposed, eventually came around to supporting the ballot item, likely because he also recognized how toothless and free of political risk the question was.

As the months went by, I thought that even though the ballot item was nonbinding, since it was supported by 75% of voters that Progressive councilors and Councilor Shannon (a vocal booster of the question) would recognize that there were concrete steps they could take in the following months while waiting for the state to raise the minimum wage. They could have expanded the livable wage ordinance, got rid of all the exemptions, could have taxed businesses over a certain size that don’t pay a livable wage, or at the very least had a public conversation about this on the local level. What did those councilors end up doing? Nothing.

In retrospect, while I felt embarrassed to have my name associated with pointless feelgood measures, it was an important learning lesson. When a ballot item or ordinance is supported by a majority of councilors, especially when supported by councilors who tend to be fairly fiscally or socially conservative, that is a good sign that the bill has no purpose, no teeth, and is really just meant for local politicians to look good without having to take any political risks.

So is the case with the new housing ballot item, and it may be no coincidence that just like the $15 ballot item, Councilor Knodell was the one to introduce it.

“Shall the voters of the city of Burlington in order to help the city’s nonprofit housing organizations build more affordable housing throughout the city, advise the city council to identify and adopt progressive local option revenues, the proceeds of which shall be used exclusively to benefit the city’s housing trust fund?”

During Monday’s council meeting, the question was changed to strike the specific tax language in lieu of the looser “local option revenues.” It passed on a vote of 9-3, with Councilors Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, Dave Hartnett, I-North District, and Joan Shannon, D-South District, opposed.”

The only way I can see this ballot item having merit is if those who voted in favor of it promise, if citizens support it, to follow through. I’d love to be made wrong on this one.