Primary Source: Can Vermont afford to do both minimum wage and paid family leave?

  • John P. Gregg. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/29/2019 10:13:43 PM
Modified: 5/30/2019 11:34:19 AM

Lost in much of the coverage about the abrupt adjournment of the Vermont House last week after an agreement couldn’t be reached with the Senate over the minimum wage and paid family leave is a simple truth — Vermont has a very small economy that might be hard-pressed to shoulder both at once.

Some lawmakers noted that Vermont’s minimum wage, at $10.78 an hour, is already among the top 10 in the country, so heading toward $15 an hour by 2024 — or even $12.25 within two years — could strain many small employers.

And the House version of paid family leave, which included paid sick leave and would have raised $76 million per year through a mandatory 0.53% payroll tax on workers, seemed like a big income tax to opponents.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, who spent part of Wednesday reshingling the roof of her house with her partner as a post-session work project, acknowledged that the measures were complicated and could have a broad range of effects, but both also had strong support.

“The complicating factors come in when you try to figure out how to move people toward a livable wage and reasonable wages where they can take care of their families while making sure that you are not putting at risk small businesses in rural Vermont, or putting at risk services for Vermonters that depend on Medicaid-based agencies,” she said, alluding to salaries for home health care workers and other providers that might have to be adjusted with a minimum wage increase.

As for paid family and medical leave, Johnson said the House was close to a compromise with the Senate, with one possibility including some voluntary elements before participation by workers became mandatory.

State Rep. Becca White, a first-term Democrat from Hartford, said constituents did not appear to be worried about the costs, even on the New Hampshire border, and that many small business owners in White River Junction backed the paid family leave measure.

“I heard specifically from small business owners who were very supportive of paid family leave,” White said.

But state Rep. Ben Jickling, an independent from Randolph, said he backed a minimum-wage package with some built-in safeguards if the economy slowed but opposed the paid family leave measure because it amounted to a “$70 to $80 million income tax increase.”

“I’ve been quite worried about more aggressive proposals,” said Jickling. “I think these type of policies, especially minimum wage, impact businesses in rural Vermont more than they do in more affluent parts of the state.”

State Rep. Jim Harrison, a Republican whose district includes Bridgewater, said eventually raising the minimum wage to $15 would impact employers who would then have to give midlevel workers raises as well.

“It would have been a stretch to actually enact both measures at the same time,” Harrison said. “I think we have to be very, very careful in trying to do too much at once without having some detrimental effect.”

State Rep. Cynthia Browning, a Democrat from the Manchester area, said the leadership proposals “went too far, too fast, too big.” Browning, a behavioral economist, noted that the state has already raised the minimum wage four times since 2014 and that the Senate goal of $15 an hour would prompt employers to cut jobs or workers’ hours, or to use more automation.

“They are going after a political sound-bite, $15, instead of what makes sense for Vermont and the Vermont economy,” Browning said.

The big wild card, as well, is where Republican Gov. Phil Scott stands on both issues, which he vetoed in 2018. He kept fairly mum as Democrats in the Legislature tried, and failed, to hash out compromises this session. Johnson said she will continue to talk to Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Burlington, to quantify some of the impacts of the two measures, and to reach out to Scott.

“We’re not that far off at all,” Johnson said of the House and Senate. “We’re in good shape to pick this up and get it to the governor’s desk early next year.”

An apple for teachers

Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are making a big appeal to teachers, a major constituency in the party.

Harris this spring said there was a teachers “pay gap” and that she would provide the average teacher a $13,500 raise during her first term.

And Biden, on Tuesday, said he would triple Title I federal funding for schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families to make salaries more competitive. He would also help educators pay off student loans, a theme embraced by Elizabeth Warren, who has also expressed solidarity with teachers on the campaign trail.

In case you were wondering, the average teacher’s salary in Vermont in the 2017-18 school year was $59,622. In New Hampshire, in 2016-17, it was $57,522 (state officials said more up-to-date numbers are coming soon).

Briefly noted

New Hampshire Democrats announced county party leaders last week. In Grafton County, the chairwoman is Sarah Daniels-Campbell of Rumney; vice chairman Bill Bolton of Plymouth; Secretary Ann Garland of Lebanon; and Treasurer George Sykes, a state representative from Lebanon.

In Sullivan County, the chairman is Judith Kaufman of Cornish; Vice Chairman John Streeter of Charlestown; Secretary Shideko Terai, of Cornish, and Treasurer Chad Rolston, of Claremont.

John P. Gregg can be reached at

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