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?

The YMCA’s Early Education Expansion Will Help Itself, Hurt Others

As someone who works directly with vulnerable populations, it’s often hard to feel optimistic in the current national and local political environment. It’s particularly difficult to see policy decisions and actions taking place in our city that inadvertently end up negatively impacting the vulnerable populations they are meant to help. The YMCA’s planned early education expansion is a good example of this, where they will add 100 more classroom spaces, 50% for families on childcare subsidy. On the surface this looks like a clearly positive addition to the city and especially for children living in poverty, but without any coordination from the larger early education community, this decision will likely do more damage than good.

Last week I wrote about how Burlington’s early education system is strained to the point of full-blown crisis. One critical part of this crisis is that preschools, in programs throughout the spectrum, have significant trouble finding and retaining highly educated teachers who can work with traumatized populations. A friend of mine at a different highly rated center said it took them an entire year to fill a single teaching spot. It turns out that when the cost of living is high and early educators make under $15 an hour, graduates choose to move elsewhere. That’s not even considering the nearly $30,000 in average debt students have when they graduate UVM, with debt repayments equaling 6 weeks of pay for 10+ consecutive years.

My school offers a good example, and I hope this information won’t get me into trouble, but I do believe it’s important to be honest and open about how our school struggles. My school is one of the best in the city if not the state (I say this to brag about the amazing work of my coworkers and directors, because if I was as good as them I’d be more focused on curriculum, not on political blogging!), and we recently put out an ad to hire substitute teachers on a per diem basis. After 3 months, only one person sent in an application. I think it’s pretty clear that the situation is dire.

Now, in a system where quality teachers are already scarce, the YMCA is looking to add 50 infant/toddler spots and 50 preschool spots. If we assume that 2 FT and 1 PT teachers will be hired for every classroom, which is fairly common, and each infant/toddler classroom has 8 children while each preschool classroom has 16 children, the Y will need to hire conservatively 27 teachers, most of whom will need 4-year college degrees and a teaching license. So, while it is nearly impossible to find lower-qualified substitutes, the Y will need another 27 highly trained educators. Add the fact that last year at the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission, after reading this letter that my staff and I wrote discussing our successes and challenges, newly hired YMCA CEO Kyle Dodson commented that the letter was overly dramatic. I have a lot of doubt that these new positions will pay a fair, livable wage. I feel sorry for the unlucky worker who has to hire for the expansion.

Just to reiterate: The YMCA will expand way too quickly in an environment when every center is struggling. At best, schools like mine, that already cannot compete with the Y in terms of fundraising and advertising, will need to raise salaries just to keep staff and not have to compete in an even tighter labor market. This means that tuition will rise for families, especially those in the middle of the income ladder. More spots for those with wealth and those without, but the middle and lower middle class will be squeezed even worse. On top of that, without highly trained staff who know how to work with children with trauma, the Y will likely see incredibly high rates of teacher and student turnover, and all quality in all centers will start to suffer. Worst case scenario, the Y pushes centers like mine out of business, leaving a handful of larger early childhood ‘factories’, like Heartworks, to choose from.

It’s a lose-lose, and I think any gains for the few families who get the new spots will be eaten up by system destabilization and potential closure of other centers. Is the risk of destabilizing the system worth it? Or should the city take its time, actually work with early childhood educators, and make sure the centers that are currently open can improve on quality and teacher retention until we as a community figure out a sustainable plan?