A key Vermont Senate committee has given its approval to legislation increasing the state minimum wage to $15 an hour over a 6-year period.
The legislation is a top priority for Senate Democratic leaders this session. By a vote of 4 to 1, the Senate Economic Development Committee gave its support to the bill Tuesday.
The legislation could be up for debate on the Senate floor by the end of the week.
Currently, the Vermont minimum wage rate is $10.50 an hour. Under this bill, it would rise incrementally every year until it reaches $15 an hour in 2024.
Chittenden Sen. Michael Sirotkin — the chairman of Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs — says the bill is designed to help address the issue of income inequality in Vermont.
"This is one concrete thing we can do to help people at the lower end of the wage scale,” said Sirotkin. “And the benefit to the economy is that when you give folks who are making presently $10.50 an added 50 or 60 cents an hour, that money will get plowed back into the economy."
And Sirotkin says the longer phase-in period should help many small businesses adjust to this change.
"This will be phased in over 6 years. ... If we left the minimum wage just to rise at the rate of inflation, we wouldn't get to $15 an hour until 2034,” said Sirotkin.
Rutland Sen. David Soucy cast the lone vote against the bill in committee. He questions whether the bill will actually help workers, and he's concerned about the burden that it places on many small businesses even with the 6-year phase-in period.
"One of the studies from the University of Washington shows that workers got less hours because of this and therefore ended up making less money,” said Soucy. “Vermont is so dependent on the small businesses. Most of them that testified could not pay the $15-an-hour minimum wage."
If the bill makes it through the Democratically-controlled Senate and House, it faces the strong opposition of Gov. Phil Scott. The governor has made it clear that he has significant problems with the legislation.
"Keep in mind that 90 percent of the employers in Vermont have less than 20 employees. Those are small businesses and this will have a dramatic effect on what they can provide for jobs," said Scott.