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

Our Minimum Wage Bill Finally Passed. The Sun Came Up the Next Day.

February 28, 2020

reptomstevens

These are my comments on the floor of the House regarding S.23, our bill to raise the minimum wage in Vermont. I had the privilege of leading off the conversation, which was more a series of recitations of support or opposition to the notion of overriding the veto of the Governor of the bill.

Madam Speaker:

I rise today to support the override of the Governor’s veto of S.23, an act that would raise the minimum wage from $10.96 today to $12.55 in 2022.

Madam Speaker, Let’s be clear: this Governor has never supported raising the minimum wage beyond the beggarly increases due to inflation. And his reasoning for denying nearly 40,000 Vermonters a small raise echo the ones he has given in the past for his lack of support for these Vermonters. He includes in his veto message several claims that look like, on paper, substantial reasons for telling Vermonters — a preponderence of them women, a preponderance of them primary wage earners in their families, all of them struggling in a Vermont deemed too expensive by the governor himself — that they are not worthy of a raise, a raise that, in and of itself, is insufficient to keep up with the increased cost of living, the increased cost of rent, the increased cost of food and clothing and health care and, as the economic world passes them by, the increased cost of poverty.

The Governor’s veto, in essence, lays the burden of poverty at the feet of those who are suffering by working for poverty wages.

Madam Speaker, to quote Studs Terkel, “our country owes every citizen of the United States of America a means of livelihood. Not a handout, but a way to make it.” We even say it in our statute, when we write “It is the declared public policy of the State of Vermont that workers employed in any occupation should receive wages sufficient to provide adequate maintenance and to protect their health, and to be fairly commensurate with the value of the services rendered.”

Madam Speaker, the committees of jurisdiction on this bill heard hours of testimony and received stacks and stacks of information on the reasons why increasing the minimum wage will help 40,000 Vermonters, a preponderence of them women, a preponderence of them the primary wage earners in their family, was the right way to go. We heard too the objections of some, who felt like paying their employees a little more was a fatal choice to their business. We heard, we listened, and we voted to increase the wage.

To justify the veto, the Governor uses statistics that we heard copious amounts of testimony on — statistics that actually make the argument that a raise in the minimum wage will not hurt the economy at all in any meaningful way.

First, that jobs will disappear. This is true, but not in the way he implies. Jobs will disappear because people will be able to work less hours for the wages they make now. That is an improvement in one’s quality of life. Adjacent to this statistic is the Governor’s own 6-3-1 math — by his calculation, there will be less people of working age at a rate of over 1,000 per year, whether or not the job pays well or is a poverty wage. How many jobs? (NOT how many people will be employed, but how many jobs will be lost? In the first year? 90. In the second year of the raise? 280.

Second, he mentions increased costs of goods and services. These costs are increasing whether or not the lowest paid workers in Vermont, the preponderence of whom are women and the preponderence of whom are heads of households, have a higher minimum wage.

Third, he mentions there will be an overall negative impact on economic growth. What he fails to mention is that the estimate provided by our Joint Fiscal Office is stretched between 2025 and 2040, and that it will make a difference of 8/100 of one percent on our Gross Domestic Product by then. This is a tough statistic, if for no other reason we expect our pension problems settled by then, and according to economists, our financial health will return to being sunny and 70 everyday. A guesstimate like this over 20 years is nothing more than that, a guess.

Madam Speaker, most economists and most social scientists agree that the best way to help low-income, poverty wage workers is to simply give them more money. Our work in this body has done some elemental work in smoothing out many parts of the benefits cliff, which won’t be negatively affected by this wage increase, and we know that while insufficient, this minimal increase to the poverty wage will not bankrupt the businesses that pay this wage, whether they are located in rural areas of the state, or in the more settled areas. And our work has shown that no economy has ever collapsed by providing a small increase in the minimum wage.

Madam Speaker, I will finish with two quotes:

It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now, there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights.

Who said this? No, not Karl Marx, but Abraham Lincoln, in 1861.

And this one, from a Vermonter, was delivered at a public hearing in 2018. They said:

If I made a living wage, my life would be different. There would be small changes. I would sleep on a bed, not the floor. I would eat three meals a day, not one and a half. There would be big changes, too. I would carry health insurance and monitor the imbalances in my endocrine system that affect my mood, my weight, and even my fertility. It is impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you can’t afford the boots.

Madam Speaker, on behalf of those who do not have a loud voice in this building, I ask the body to override the governor’s veto, and to support those 40,000 Vermonters — a preponderence of them women, and a preponderence of them the primary wage earner in their family — who deserve a raise.

Update: The Governor’s veto of S.23 was overriden by a vote of 100-49.

Approaching the Quarter Pole on Paid Family Leave

January 18, 2020

reptomstevens

On Wednesday, January 15, House and Senate members in the Vermont Legislature signed a report from the conference committee on H.107, our Paid Family Medical Leave Insurance Act. On Friday, January 17, the Senate passed the bill 20-9-1, and on this coming Thursday, January 23, the House will vote on it. If it passes, it will go to the Governor. He will have 5 days to sign it, let it go into law without his signature, or veto it. As I said in the title to the piece, we are at the quarter pole–almost home but still a ways to go before we get there.


This bill, if enacted, will provide access to a number of family-friendly benefits for working Vermonters, families who would like to have children and those that need to provide care for aging or ill family members. It also strengthens the existing Vermont Family and Medical Leave Act, which is unpaid (and has existed since the 1990s) and provides some job protections for those who take the leave.


Paid leave for bonding (or maternity/paternity) will require a small payroll tax to purchase the premium of .20% — or 2 cents for every $10 of income — and because leave for a personal injury is a voluntary part of the program (for now), opting in would cost less than 4 cents more for every $10 of income. This payroll tax would be taken from every employee in Vermont on income up to approximately $140,000, just like Social Security taxes, which are far higher than this one.


There are provisions in the bill that determine the nuances of that leave taken — for foster children, siblings, grandchildren — and the rates of wage replacement. For instance, if you make $27,000 a year (or about $15 an hour), you will receive 90% of your income for the weeks you need it. From that $27,000 salary on up, you would receive the 90% for the first $27,000, and then 55% of your income until the benefit reaches $964 (if your salary is approximately $73,000). Salaries above that would receive the capped benefit of $964 as wage replacement.


This technical discussion of some of the nuts and bolts of H.107 obscures the reason we have worked so long on this bill — families need support during times of medical crisis (illness, death or injury), and during times of joy (childbirth). This bill takes the stand in saying that Vermonters should not have to suffer the financial stress of the loss of income or the fear that they will lose employment during these times, and we feel that Vermonters who are able to use this benefit become better and healthier parents, and better and healthier employees. From there, we can imagine workplaces where loyal employees are more efficient, leading to less turnover and better long-term health and economic outcomes for both the employers and employees. We also know it takes two to tango, and we expect employers to embrace this program as a economic driver to attract younger people and younger Vermonters to their companies.


If Governor Scott vetoes this bill, thereby going against the will and wishes of the vast majority of Vermonters who support this bill, both in surveys and through the votes of their elected representatives, we will be forced to try to override his veto. And while it may appear that we have enough representatives to do this, it is not clear that we yet have the votes. Please reach out to your representatives and ask to support it, and if they say no, ask them why.


These benefits will go a long way to helping Vermonters deal with the issues that can slow them down, and I think it will show that we can build a compassionate policy that can help make it so. In conjunction with this bill, we will be pressing forward this coming week for an increase in the minimum wage.

Shakespeare Knew PTSD

April 23, 2019

reptomstevens

The following is my annual “devotional” delivered before the Vermont House of Representatives. I always focus on elements of William Shakespeare’s language and observations and how they relate to the issues we deal with every day in our work. I came upon this monologue several years ago, and when I researched it, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of writing that had been done on it, noticing that Shakespeare was defining what we now call PTSD, hundreds of years before we had that name for it. Knowing that Shakespeare and, presumably, others of the time, described this illness in this way is, as discussed below, strangely gratifying.

Testimony two weeks ago in your House General, Housing and Military Affairs committee shook many of us to the bone, and gave focus to one of the great unknowns about the genius of William Shakespeare.

Today is considered Shakespeare’s birthday, depending on which source you read, and it may have been the day he died, 52 years later, in 1616, 403 years ago. During the years I have stood here, sharing a devotional with him, I have done so in the spirit of his poetry, and of the notion, in agreement with Harold Bloom, that Shakespeare created the artistic view of the complete human being, and, in the face of his somewhat indecipherable but beautiful words, transcribed human feelings in a way that teaches us — teaches me — that our emotional evolution is perhaps one of the slowest things we know; and that rather than imagine that Shakespeare “invented” the human in art, as Bloom describes, he perhaps merely captured, poetically, the unchanging human condition.

It’s easy to say that we’ve changed so much since the late 16th or early 17th century, and that’s true. We no longer die quite so often from plague. We have running water and we know how to get rid of human waste safely. We have electricity and phones that are computers that fit in our pocket and ways of making the whole world smaller that were barely if ever considered 400 years ago.

But when we quickly think of 400 years ago, we think people were…what? Ignorant? Not as smart as us? Like us but not as complex? But we know different. And what I love about Shakespeare is that we haven’t really changed, at least not as much as we would like to believe, and this lack of change actually grounds me in my work here in the building.

The testimony we heard was about burn pits in the Middle East, and how when we have gone overseas and built tremendous camp cities in deserts (or, for that matter, in jungles in Vietnam), we have solved for so much except for waste. Burn pits are a normal part of life in these camp cities, but they are large—some the size of three contiguous football fields—and they distribute dust and chemicals and acrid smoke across the horizon, just as it did in America before we learned how to better incinerate, dispose of, or recycle trash.

And we heard about the illnesses that we think are caused by these burn pits, and how some of our bravest servicemembers are succumbing to diseases they shouldn’t have developed in the first place. And I felt some kind of deep anger — the kind that I don’t usually exhibit, not when I am hearing testimony, and to relieve myself of that, I thought and I thought and I sought some kind of cultural solace, a lifeboat really, that would bring me back to the present, and temper my anger, if only by an acknowledgment through the art that we are who we are, for better and for worse.

And the text I grabbed on to was this one, from Henry IV, about the character Hotspur. Hotspur was a hothead. A contemporary of Prince Hal, who would become Henry the Fifth. Hotspur was bent out of shape because his family helped Henry IV take the crown from Richard II. Rather than share the spoils, Henry IV conspired to keep Hotspur’s family, the Percys, on the outside. Hotspur was a soldier, and was ready to go to war to usurp Henry. And as he prepared for the battle, he was confronted by his wife.

All of this can be considered standard Shakespearean fare — Wars and Kings and Hotheads and Wars and Kings! — but listen to what Kate said to him. Listen, and think of the men and women who fight wars everyday in our name, and are told to exist under conditions that, if examined, would prove cruel to just about anyone else.

She says:

Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure and thy golden sleep?

She says:

Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,
And start so often when thou sit’st alone?
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks;
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy?

What does this sound like to you? We have heard this over the years. She says:

In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch’d,
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars;
Speak terms of manage [horsemanship] to thy bounding steed;
Cry ‘Courage! to the field!’ And thou hast talk’d
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners’ ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.

We called it shell shock, or battle fatigue, and now call it PTSD. She says:

Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus hath so bestirr’d thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream;
And in thy face strange motions have appear’d,
Such as we see when men restrain their breath
On some great sudden hest. O, what portents are these?

We know that men and women change when they go to war, and we know that part of what they lose, at least for a time, is their humanity, their essential common connection with others. It has to be so, and it saddens me. And when I hear of the things we do in the name of war, and the things we don’t do in the name of our veterans, it seems all the same. And yet we can feel revitalized by the knowledge that it’s a deep problem of human society and we’re not somehow lesser for failing to fix it. That we grapple with the same ideals, the same problems, the same proclivities as our parents, our grandparents and so on back in time until we reach…when?

What I know is this: a human will always fight when they feel oppressed, or if they feel one down, or backed in a corner. Sometimes we will stop and give them a hand up. Sometimes we’ll blame them for their predicament. But what I find promising in our work is that we tend to ask what people need, and we are responsible for helping those we can help. So as we head to the endgame of the session, let us remember that what we do here is the best work there is, and when we do it right, no one will be happy, and no one will be hurt and, somehow, we will all be the better for it.