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Labor Bills Still Afloat as Session Comes to a Close

by Emily Kaminsky
The first of May is an opportune time to shine a spotlight on some of the labor-related bills that are still afloat as we approach the end of this year’s legislative session. After all, it’s May Day which is not only a spring festival day, but also International Workers’ Day, a public holiday celebrated in over 80 countries. In the Vermont legislature, now is the time when, in the words of Senator Anthony Pollina, “the bills you worked so hard on either work out or everything comes tumbling down.”
The “prevailing wages” bill would have replaced the state’s current prevailing wage statute with the federal Davis-Bacon Act, bringing construction workers’ wages for state construction projects in line with federal minimums. However, the bill did not make the date for crossover into the Senate and was placed instead in the Senate Rules Committee. Contrary to the expectations of supporters, the Senate Rules Committee voted against sending the bill forward to committee, keeping it from seeing the light of day. It wasn’t clear from conversations with supporters whether this bill will be taken up again next year.
Another bill which has garnered significant public attention and support is the “earned (or paid) sick days” bill. For Stauch Blaise, a volunteer member of the Vermont Workers’ Center which supports the effort, this bill was gaining momentum only to be stopped dead in its tracks in the House Committee on Appropriations on March 21. Having heard that the bill might not pass the committee, Blaise and other Workers’ Center volunteers attended the meeting and read a statement in support of the bill. “Then we put tape over our mouths and stood in silence,” said Blaise. “The chair immediately summoned the sergeant at arms to escort us out of the committee room for being disruptive.”
But Blaise and the organizations that support earned sick days aren’t dissuaded. “We’re going to come back next year stronger than ever,” he said with confidence. The bill or the lack thereof has a personal impact on Blaise’s family. “My wife has been sick for 12 days; we’re 12 days behind on everything.” Darya Marchenkova of the Vermont Workers’ Center said, “We think we can have both the minimum wage increase and earned sick days.”
The “early childcare provider union” bill passed the Senate and currently sits in the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs. The bill allows childcare providers to form a union so they can negotiate higher reimbursements from the state. Vermonters for the Independence of Child Care Professionals is against the bill, citing a variety of reasons to oppose the bill, including the concern that a union would assess fair share dues or “agency fees” on providers who choose not to join the union but benefit from any negotiations the union might undertake with the state.  Representative Tom Stevens believes this isn’t a given: “The reality is agency fees are not a given. They are a bargainable item,” he said. “We’re pretty certain the bill will move forward. We are just trying to make sure we have that support on the floor. It’s been a long road and a lot of work to get it where it is. We’re confident we’ll have it out before the end of the session,” he said.
Finally, the effort to increase the state’s minimum wage has seen bills introduced on both sides of the legislature with encouragement from the administration in light of President Obama’s call to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2017.
“We were thinking about a bill and were floating it around,” said Representative Paul Poirier, “and then the governor asked for one.”
While the House bill initially sought to increase the state minimum wage from $8.73 to $12.50 effective January 1, 2015, the target was soon amended downward to $10.10 with incremental adjustments from then on based on the Consumer Price Index or 5 percent, whichever is smaller. A similar, albeit more, conservative bill was put forward by the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs which Senator Kevin Mullin, chair, called “the best version out there.” Their bill brings the minimum wage up to $10.50 by 2019.
While some feel that the Senate didn’t go far enough, others felt the measure unnecessary. “We prefer existing law,” said Jim Harrison, president of Vermont Grocers’ Association.
Harrison represents grocers who, he said, would be negatively impacted by a large increase in a short period of time. “These bills just propose transferring money around. There’s no new money. We don’t own printing presses,” he said, suggesting that increasing the minimum wage is not an effective way to increase real wages for average Vermonters. “A stronger economy is what is going to increase wages, not pushing up the minimum. If it were that easy, we would have done it earlier,” he said.
Senator Anthony Pollina disagrees. “Raising minimum wage is an economic development strategy and a way to begin to close the wealth gap,” he said. “Increase the pay of working families so that they can take care of themselves and pay their bills. And, they’ll have some left over to make purchases.”
Representative Tom Stevens, who is on the House committee that created the “$10.10 by 2015” bill, said, “The state economist’s report was very clear that our bill would have a negligible impact on businesses.” Stevens expects that they’ll be sorting the different versions of the bill with the Senate in conference committee. “Their version of the bill doesn’t really do much. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017 is really only $9.60 in today’s dollars. We have every indication that raising the minimum wage makes small businesses more competitive and raises the quality of life for average Vermonters,” he said.
“The clock is not on our side,” said Poirier. “We’ll get to at least $10.10. The question is how long will it take.”