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.

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