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Washington-Chittenden: Waterbury, Bolton, Huntington & Buels Gore

The Working, The Working, Just the Working Life

April 29, 2016

reptomstevens

The following is an opinion piece written by Rep. Mary Hooper from Montpelier. Her view strikes a balance between the protections needed for workers in traditional work settings and flexibility desired by people who choose to be independent contractors. 

Employment is an agreement between businesses and workers. Business receives labor, workers receive a paycheck and certain rights and protections. This bargain has value and costs and therein lies the century old tension in the workplace.

With competition in the marketplace, businesses have an interest in reducing the costs of employment. Society has an interest in assuring the costs of employment are shared fairly. The Legislature’s job is finding the right balance.

Since the great recession, the number of contingent workers has risen dramatically in the United States. By some estimates, temporary and part time workers and independent contractors now make up 40% of the work force. Independent contractors are a growing part of this group. They do not receive the benefits associated with employment, in particular workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance.

About 100 years ago, the first Vermont workers’ compensation statute was enacted in response to the epidemic of silicosis in the granite industry and over the fierce opposition of business. 

Today it is shocking to read about the debate. Granite shed owners openly spoke of the Italian workers as being naturally inclined to filth and squalor causing what we now know is silicosis.

This was the beginning of modern labor law in Vermont. We have added unemployment insurance, minimum wage, occupational health and safety, and most recently earned leave. Each of these are steps in the effort to balance the rights and obligations of workers and employers to each other. Each step was a result of give and take.

It costs money to provide these protections and understandably there is an effort to limit the cost. The problem is that when workers are pushed, or encouraged to not be employees, an uneven playing field is created. Employers who pay for workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance are at a competitive disadvantage to employers who save upwards of 30% on their labor costs by considering employees as independent contractors.

If workers are not covered by workers compensation or unemployment insurance and they can not work, the individual suffers and society picks up the cost.

Today we hear that, in the “new economy,” people want to be independent contractors because of their lifestyle choices. Twenty-five years ago, we heard that moms wanted to stay home and do piece work on knitting machines, earning less than minimum wage, so they could be with their kids. One hundred years ago, it was asserted that personal hygiene caused silicosis.

The House Committee on Commerce has worked for two years to find the balance between people who really are independent businesses and those who really are employees. The Committee sought to remove confusion in our labor law created by Court decisions and to establish one definition of employee in the workers compensation and unemployment insurance laws. Seemingly simple goals, but because of the complexity of how people work, they are very hard to accomplish.  

Thanks to the leadership of the House Commerce Committee and an openness to working with a multitude of people and interests I think a middle ground has been found. A definition, or test, of independent contractor was created which addresses the complexity of the modern workplace. It assures that workers can have the independence the may desire, while assuring that the rights and protections of employees remain in place. It addresses the uncertainty created by court decisions and eliminates multiple definitions of employee. I think we found a way to have the right balance. 

Still Shakespeare After All These Years

April 25, 2016

reptomstevens

WmShakespeare

I read this piece on the State House floor on April 22, 2016, as my annual devotional (usually dedicated to Wm. Shakespeare).

Tomorrow, April 23, is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. All around the world, Shakespeare has been celebrated — a tour of papers related to him and his works found itself in Middlebury this past winter.

When I was in college, during the early 1980s, I thought I was as smart as can be, and I spent many an hour, inebriated or not, arguing about how much the human race had evolved in their thinking, and arguing that we were so much better off than we were, even as recently as 400 years ago. To me, the characters in Shakespeare were not terribly complex, and, as thick as Shakespeare’s poetry was to me, I certainly did not appreciate that, in fact, Shakespeare’s characters were intensely human, reacted in human ways, and were, in fact, much more three dimensional than I could possibly give them credit for at that age.

Over time, as I aged, I read essays on Shakespeare’s works, and grew to love how he was able to shape his characters in a way that was, in the words of Professor Harold Bloom, the “invention of the human.” What he meant was, “the invention of the human in print.” To me, with the help of essayists such as Bloom and Harold Goddard and others, I learned that Shakespeare’s characters were as rich as any characters created in the 18th, or 19th, or 20th century. In fact, I learned, or was reminded, that I wasn’t as smart as I wanted to be, and that humans have not, truly, evolved or changed very much over the last 400 years. We still have the same traits, the same faults, the same foibles, as humans from all ages. We choose love, or greed, or hatred, and we harbor murderous or exploitive or altruistic thoughts and feelings as we have for millenia. Read more

Housing That is Affordable Matters

March 25, 2016

reptomstevens

Luna Moth

Creating housing that is affordable is expensive. That paradox paralyzes everyone who can identify the need for affordable housing and housing that is affordable. If you are a private developer and building a new house or new rental units, the sweet financial spot you have to meet after purchase of land, infrastructure (especially water and septic), permitting, labor and construction loans, along with profit, is pretty high and can make that housing unaffordable for most Vermonters. If you are a nonprofit developer, you have the same costs and many, if not more, regulatory hurdles to overcome, but you have mechanisms that allow for outside investment, and that allow for rents that are affordable to Vermonters at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

The need for affordable housing, and housing that is affordable, is clear. Housing is a key component to economic development and growth in Vermont. Without housing, businesses will have a harder time choosing to locate here, or to grow here. Without housing, working Vermonters will not be able to afford to rent or buy a home, so they can live and raise a family in the community they choose. And, as this article from Pacific Standard illustrates, creating housing stability is one of the surest paths to a middle class life.

So what makes an apartment, or a home, affordable? By federal definition, the costs associated with your housing — rent, mortgage, insurance, taxes — will be affordable if they are less than 30% of your annual income. In Vermont, nearly 48% of renters are paying more than that, and are considered to be “cost burdened.” And just under 50% of those folks are paying over 50% of  their income for housing, and are considered “severely cost burdened.” For owners, our information shows that 33% are cost burdened, and just over a third of those are severely cost burdened. Read more

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