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Minimum wage and liveable wage

06/04/04 12:00AM By Ellen David Friedman
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(Host) Commentator Ellen David Friedman tells us about a research study that finds that, despite the recent economic recovery, many Vermonters are still not making a livable wage.

(Friedman) Let's say you've been working hard in the last few years but not staying ahead of your expenses. It turns out that in this period of recovery from the most recent recession the share of increase in the national income going to workers has been the lowest on record, according to an authoritative labor market study from Northeastern University, completed in March. Since November 2001, almost all of the growth in income has gone to the bosses and almost none to the workers -- an unprecedented economic pattern.

The Vermont Job Gap Study tells us that one in four Vermonters isn't making a livable wage. The crazy thing is our productivity is actually very robust, but the wealth is simply being sucked off for CEO salaries and shareholder profits. Greed is not only going unchecked, it has become nearly unchallengeable. Even here in Vermont, where we can take rightful pride in progressive policies that support working people, it is a relentless battle to fight the larger trend.

Consider, for example, the way the Douglas administration is trying to reverse gains for minimum-wage workers. Last year our Legislature approved an important, though totally inadequate, increase in the minimum wage -- moving it to $6.75 now and $7.00 next January. It was a small step in the direction of sharing economic wealth -- but apparently too much for the pro-business advocates.

Earlier this year, the Douglas administration proposed regulations that would undermine even these modest gains. The regulations, if approved, allow employers for the first time to charge workers for uniforms they're required to wear, and for their upkeep. Also, when employers provide room and board to -- let's say -- farm, ski and hotel workers, they'll be able to charge much more than is presently allowed -- and deduct these costs from workers' paychecks without their permission. The net effect is that employers can charge back all wages above the bare minimum of $6.75 an hour.

Look: I am disheartened by much our Legislature did this year with the apparent goal of appearing pro-business. Changes to Act 250, the stormwater permit process, and workers' compensation were driven -- to my mind -- by the ethic "profits before people." But at least they were debated and voted on by elected officials -- and in the public eye. This regulation is a back-door change, being done through a minimally public process. Most important, it will kick low-wage workers even farther in the hole. That's not what our Legislature had in mind. I think the Department of Labor and Industry ought to respect the minimum wage law and forget this nickel-and-dime attack on our most vulnerable Vermont workers.

I'm Ellen David Friedman.
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