Monday, July 29, 2013

Citizens Weigh In on Livable Wage as Comm Mulls "Enforcement Holes"

Due to a technical issue with the Vermont Commons website, this report is being temporarily posted here until the issue is addressed.

Burlington City Councilor Rachel Siegel addresses the Ordinance Committee on Thursday

Burlington- Meeting one Thursday at the Burlington Police Department, the City Council Ordinance Committee continued their process of re-examining the Queen City’s Livable Wage ordinance. Beginning with a lengthy public comment period, the committee slowly picked its way through section after section of the ordinance that sets the minimum wage for city contractors at no lower than $13.94 an hour.

Unlike previous meetings, this one was dominated by a public comment period that stretched on for over an hour as numerous citizens and fellow City Councilors shared their experiences and perspectives regarding the Queen City’s dire need to maintain a livable wage ordinance. First to speak was Donna Iverson, a long-time Burlington resident and school district employee who asserted the importance of economic justice amidst the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. “A livable wage means that I can support myself” said Iverson.

Other citizens also weighed in about the ordinance. Several airport employees who declined to be identified asserted necessity of the ordinance in addition to attempting to dispel a few of the surrounding myths, “The livable wage doesn’t make anybody rich, it merely lets us earn just enough to get by” said one employee. “If the livable wage is taken away, we will have to shop at Walmart and other non-local businesses. Just as we want local products, we also want to make sure that Vermonters can afford them.” Another airport employee continued “whoever works at the airport but doesn’t make a livable wage, can’t afford to eat at the Skinny Pancake” said the man referring to the notable Burlington eatery’s recently granted exemption from the ordinance.

Residents and workers of Burlington speak in adamant support for the Livable Wage Ordinance

Also speaking were Brittany Nevins of the Vermont Workers’Center and Sam Cliff, the Chief Steward of UE Local 203 at City Market; each of whom spoke of the offensive nature of cutting out groups of workers that may be even more in need of a livable wage ordinance “The quality of life [in Burlington] is compromised when large groups like students and temp workers are excluded” said Nevins. “I was fortunate to graduate without loans… but I still struggle everyday.” Speaking next, Cliff noted that many students graduate with thousands of dollars in debt, an expense often overlooked in traditional cost of living analyses, “Every student should get paid a livable wage” he firmly asserted.

Submitting a statement by the Peace & Justice Center, Melissa Gelinas told the councilors “It seems that as a governing body you three have not taken ownership of the concept or philosophy of livable wage” she said. “The conversation seems to revolve around trying to understand what was the original intent of the City Councilors that passed this ordinance, rather than how to make sure the city supports all workers ability to meet their basic needs.” Continuing to read from the statement, Gelinas asked that exemption requests go before the entire City Council and that measures to ensure accountability for all businesses applying or exemptions.

Deciding one by one that they couldn’t remain silent, City Councilors Max Tracy; Vince Brennan; Emma Mulvaney-Stanak; and Rachel Siegel also made their way to the speakers table to share their thoughts on the re-examination of the 2001 ordinance. Commenting on his fear that the process could begin a slow erosion of the livable wage in Burlington, Councilor Tracy implored the committee to look at the ordinance as an opportunity to affirm the Queen City’s community values as one the greatest places to live in America. Detailing his own experiences with contractors and the livable wage, Councilor Brennan added “we need to make sure that everyone working in the [economic] food chain is able to work with dignity.”

Councilor Vince Brennan speaks to the Ordinance Committee during the public comment period

Councilor Max Tracy speaking in support of Burlington's Livable Wage ordinance

Speaking a short time later, Councilor Mulvaney-Stanak examined the feasibility of the ordinance through a variety of different lenses: “Rather than saying ‘no we can’t afford [this], let’s look at another area of the City that’s done so successfully” she said in reference to the Burlington School District’s successful implementation of a livable wage to its workers. Mulvaney-Stanak also pointed to the effective gradual implementation of a livable wage at the airport servicing Syracuse, New York; which shares many similarities with Burlington International. Immediately following Mulvaney-Stanak was Councilor Rachel Siegel who recounted a moving story of gardening in the Intervale with her six year old son and finding herself explaining money, poverty, and debt to him for the first time. “‘Well, nobody has less than one cent’ he said, but then I explained what debt was and how many, many people in Burlington have much less than one cent.” Continuing her impassioned statement to the committee, Siegel spoke of her hope that the ordinance would upheld and expanded, “a city that works against this ever-growing class divide is a city I want to work in, it’s a city I want to live in.”

Filling out the Enforcement Toolbox

Following the lengthy public comment period, the committee began slowly picking its way through each section of the ordinance, their comments now notably geared towards finding methods of filling what Committee Chair Mason termed the “enforcement holes” that have resulted in the reported 14% compliance rate among applicable employers. First among the fixes would be the repositioning of exemption approvals, requiring that each exemption be approved by the full City Council rather than by the Board of Finance as they are currently. This adjustment would not only require a decision from all City Councilors but also bring the any exemptions into full view of the public eye, ensuring that Burlington citizens have a greater voice at the table.

An additional hole in the enforcement of the ordinance seems to be the lack of an established complaint process that would allow affected workers to file grievances with City officials. Additionally, Burlington’s livable wage ordinance has no current provisions that would allow the City to examine the financial records of contractors with the goal of ensuring workers receive proper pay per ordinance requirements. In short, the livable wage ordinance’s low compliance rate is rooted in the inability of the Queen City to enforce its own 2001 decision.

Once established, a formal complaint process could involve in an automatic audit of the employer in question upon which, if noncompliance is discovered, civil damages may be pursued by the City as tickets of $500 per day of noncompliance per aggrieved employee. Suggested by Matt McGrath of the Vermont Workers’ Center and others, monies gathered through these tickets could potentially be rewarded back to aggrieved employees as a portion of their previously unpaid wages.

In addition to a formal complaint process, committee members Mason, Bushor, and Paul also discussed pre-complaint techniques of achieving higher compliance rates. Among the most popular to techniques add to the toolbox of enforcement appears to be the implementation of two-year limits on any exemptions to the ordinance. Supported by Councilor Siegel as well as the Peace & Justice Center, two-year limitations on exemptions would prevent expanding businesses from unfairly utilizing an exemption in the wake of rapid expansion or rising profits. Additionally, these limitations would also encourage those contractors requiring an exemption to adopt better business practices with the goal of moving towards meeting livable wage standards upon the expiration date of their exemption from the ordinance. Along with two-year exemption limits, the committee also discussed annual recertification requirements for all contractors as a method of ensuring compliance for the full duration of any contract with the City.

The final addition to the enforcement toolbox appears to come in the form of creating an independent body or entity tasked with overseeing, enforcing, and investigating complaints surrounding the livable wage ordinance. The idea of an agency or department monitoring the compliance of livable wage standards has gathered support of the Vermont Workers’ Center as well as Councilors Tracy, Bushor, and Paul along with the likely support of Vince Brennan and Rachel Siegel. Surprising many present, Karen Paul broke a long personal silence during the meeting by voicing unexpected support for the creation of a 3rd party monitoring entity. “I’ve personally had the experience of wanting to be a whistleblower” said Paul, “it’s an incredibly intimidating experience.” When admonished by Eileen Blackwood of the gravity an import of that statement “that’s a big ticket item”, Paul resolutely responded “Yes, I know.”

Burlington’s next Ordinance Committee meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, August 7th at 5:30pm when they have planned to discuss the (un)Constitutionality of the No Trespass ordinance of the Church Street Marketplace. Their next meeting regarding the Livable Wage ordinance is scheduled for August 13th at 5:30pm.

For more work by Dylan Kelley visit his website, Facebook page, Vermont Commons column, and follow him on Twitter via @LiveFromGround.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Citizens and Councilors

The conversation around Burlington's Livable Wage Ordinance continued Thursday evening as citizens and City Councilors weighed in as the ordinance is re-examined.

Upcoming Project: Putting Food on the Table

Hello vast universe of dedicated followers,

I'm currently working on a project about food insecurity and the relationship that working people have with food and various forms of food assistance (food shelf, food stamps, etc).

Currently, Congress is planning on stripping away enormous portions of federal food assistance. Part of this project is to find out how these programs influence the lives of everyday people and also learn about what might happen if these programs are cut.

If you know what it's like to struggle to put food on the table; have seen the affects of food insecurity; or have a unique perspective on how the lack of food impacts everyday life and would like to share your experience (or know of somebody who would like to share) please send me a message via my website.

Also, feel free to browse the Stories of America section of my site. This project will likely be a branching out of many of the stories told there. Hope you hear from you soon.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Slow Democracy: Photographing Local Government

In recent months, I've been taken with a profound interest in local government and the "slow democracy" style of decision making so familiar to most New England-ers. Whether it's citizens talking about resistance to a proposed pipeline through their town, City Councilors adjusting and tinkering with local ordinances, or even the occasional church supper; I believe that photographing and covering these kinds of events with the same journalistic/documentary energy and enthusiasm has been one of the more intriguing experiences of the past year or so.

Not am I now equipped with a better understanding of a myriad of issues but I'm also granted the fantastic opportunity to talk with my fellow citizens about what is on their minds regarding their communities. This is where great journalism and storytelling has always originated from: community members engaged in discourse with one another. So often, I feel that contemporary "mainstream" gloss over this and fixate on the figures of power in government, industry, and elsewhere. So seldom are the occasions that the voices and concerns of everyday citizens covered as frequently and intimately as those of conventional "deciders" and decision makers. Additionally, the process of photographing meetings; hearings; and discussions gives me the tremendous aesthetic challenging of visualizing discourse (usually in less that satisfactory lighting conditions). It's also more challenging to come away from a relatively unexciting meeting with an image that (upon looking for a moment) is capable of implying the fatigue, uncertainty, and tension that exists just beneath the surface.

That said, here are some image from a recent meeting of the Burlington City Council Ordinance Committee. Be prepared to see related images of Discourse, Dissent, and Dissonance in the coming months.


To see more work by Dylan Kelley visit his website, Facebook page, and column at Vermont Commons. You may also follow Dylan on Twitter via @LiveFromGround

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Just got back from an excursion to SolarFest! Stay tuned for the accompanying article with Vermont Commons!

Friday, July 12, 2013

From Photos to Cartoons: Journalism/Documentary Takes New Form

Looking through a recent issue of Vermont's 7Days weekly newspaper, I was delighted to see one of my communities favorite publications embrace a different form of storytelling and communication. In a decidedly novel approach, the 7Days staff created a "cartoon issue" that utilized visual storytelling to communicate on everything from music reviews, local politics, and human rights. Needless to say, I took notes on how the cartoonists assembled their compositions, panels, and layouts. I took notes on pretty much every impressive thing they did (of which there were many).
Paging through the issue I noticed this story on my friend Danilo Lopez.

Reading through the panels I noticed something familiar. The second panel of the second row, depicts Danilo being loaded into a Border Patrol vehicle during the very incident that I made this image:

More than anything, I want to express my creative delight at seeing one of my images potentially being used as a jumping off point for more impactful and graceful storytelling about issues that hold vital significance to the community. Well done Andy Bromage (who was also present during the incident), Jen Sorensen, and everyone else who contributed to this tremendously successful marriage of journalism and visual storytelling.

Dylan Kelley

For more work by Dylan Kelley visit his website, Facebook page, column at Vermont Commons, and follow Dylan on Twitter via @LivefromGround.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Tense Community Hearing in Shoreham

Part of an ongoing project about the VT Gas pipeline through Addison County, VT; this series of pictures comes from an especially tense community meeting in the tiny town of Shoreham, Vermont. Wary of the ecological and economic costs of constructing a natural gas pipeline through their community for the sake of a single business, Shoreham residents ask tough questions of community leadership and management of International Paper's Ticonderoga Mill.

For more work by Dylan Kelley visit his website, Vermont Commons blog, Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter via @LiveFromGround.

Outhouse races???

On the same parade grounds that witnessed dragons prowling around (see "Here Be Dragons" entry), I was also fortunate enough to photograph the Vermont Workers' Center compete with their "Healthcare is a Human Right/Put People First" bedecked outhouse. Curious, very curious.

Click to enlarge.