Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe says raising the state minimum wage to $15 an hour will be one of his top priorities for the 2018 legislative session.
Later this week, a special legislative committee will release its final plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Vermont. While the panel has left it to lawmakers to decide how long to ramp up to that figure, Ashe says it’s time for lawmakers to act.
“Every Vermonter really has to ask the basic question … Should we have people who work fulltime making only 10 bucks an hour, and do we think they can really think they can live any kind of decent life on that money?” Ashe says. “I think the answer is clearly not.”
And so Ashe says the minimum wage increase be a “personal priority” for 2018.
“There is no policy right now that I’m aware of that compares with the potential magnitude of benefit of as increasing the minimum wage,” Ashe says.
The Legislature’s Minimum Wage Study Committee has spent the off-session studying the merits of a minimum wage increase. On Friday, the panel will issue a final recommendation that calls for an increase to $15 an hour.
The committee approved the recommendation on a 4-2 party-line vote. Manchester Center Rep. Brian Keefe is one of two Republicans on the committee who oppose the plan.
Keefe says he’s concerned in part about the low-wage workers who would actually lose ground as a result of a wage increase.
“A lot of people would lose money with a mandated increase in the minimum wage,” Keefe says.
That’s because the wage increase, according to studies commissioned by the Legislature, would cause some single-parent households to lose more in benefits than they’d gain in household income.
Also, Keefe says lawmakers can’t fix the market dynamics that have led to low wages simply by imposing a mandate from on high.
“If you’re making 12 bucks and it jumps up to $15, one of the reactions is, well, your employer might cut you back and say, ‘I can’t give you 40 hours, I can give you 35,” Keefe says.
Ashe says he’s sensitive to the issue of the so-called benefits cliff, where workers lose more in state subsidies than they gain in wages as the result of a salary bump. But he says that phenomenon would affect only a couple thousand Vermonters.
“That would be in my opinion a very strange calculation to come down on holding back the wages of 50,000 or more people,” Ashe says.
And, Ashe says the Legislature can devise ways to insulate low-wage workers from undue losses in benefits.
The Minimum Wage Study Committee has left one very key question unanswered, and that’s how long the state should take to get to $15 an hour. Ashe says it’ll be up to legislative committees to land on a timeline. Pending legislation would take the wage to $15 as early as 2020, and as late as 2026.
The push for the minimum wage increase will face significant resistance from business groups who oppose the plan. And they’ll have a key ally in Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who has also expressed opposition to a minimum wage increase.
But a coalition of advocacy groups has formed a “Raise the Wage” campaign to advance the effort.
Isaac Grimm is with Rights and Democracy, one of the organizations leading that push. More than 40 percent of people making minimum wage in Vermont are the head of the household, and 40 percent of minimum wage workers account for more than half of their household’s income, according to state labor data.
Grimm says those kinds of statistics underscore the importance of a minimum wage increase.
“The fact that they’re recommending getting toward $15 and keeping it open to figuring out what’s the best way to get there, that’ll really benefit working Vermonters and help lift up local economies, we think is a really encouraging step,” Grimm says.