MONTPELIER – Less than 24 hours after the Senate Economic Development Committee approved a $15 minimum wage proposal, Republican leaders on Wednesday held a news conference to declare that the party is united against the bill.
House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, led the charge, surrounded by colleagues Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia; Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Chittenden; Rep. Patricia McCoy, R-Poultney; and Rep. Brian Keefe, R-Manchester, among others.
“We stand united to protect the most vulnerable Vermonters,” Turner said. “I want to be clear this bill will not only hurt our state businesses but workers as well.”
Citing statistics from an October study by economist Tom Kavet, Turner said raising the minimum wage to $15 will lead to the loss of 2,830 jobs annually. “This doesn’t even consider our per-hour reductions, price hikes, business closures, labor automation and reduction in benefits,” Turner said.
Approved by Senate committee members in a 4-1 vote Tuesday, S.40 would raise Vermont’s current minimum wage of $10.50 an hour to $15 by the year 2024.
Other Republicans offered concerns on why a $15 wage is bad policy. Keefe, a member of the study committee that examined the idea last summer, said the measure is inflexible.
“I also lived in Manchester, where there are a lot of small businesses and a lot of entrepreneurs, and I hear from them about the impact this might have on their businesses, and how there’s no flexibility in this current proposal for companies that may offer benefits or flexible time and other things that are valuable to employees,” he said.
He added that he’s also concerned about parents who receive a childcare subsidy and might hit the benefits cliff if the wage is increased.
“There are several thousand parents with children who would lose ground economically, and that was clearly documented by the study group,” he said.
Benning, who spoke the most on the issue, acknowledged that some might wonder how a senator representing an economically challenged district could oppose a $15 minimum.
“That is always a legitimate concern, but primarily in my neck of the woods, the bigger concern [is] do we have jobs there available for us to begin with,” he said.
Benning handed out charts and graphs illustrating the gap in economic trends between Chittenden County and the rest of the state.
“If you are an owner of a coffee kiosk on Church Street in Burlington, you can average anywhere from 500 to 800 people an hour coming by your coffee kiosk. And if you are selling a cup of coffee for $3 a shot, you might very well be able to pay your employees $15 an hour.”
But foot-traffic in a rural part of Vermont can be just few dozen per day, he added.
“You can understand immediately why there might be a different impact in the Northeast Kingdom than is happening over in Chittenden County,” he said.
Benning said Vermont, which has the sixth highest minimum wage in the nation, is hurting itself economically along the Connecticut River border.
“Those of us who are from the Connecticut River Valley understand every day why it is there is such a strong economy in Colebrook, New Hampshire, as opposed to Bloomfield, Vermont, as Lancaster, New Hampshire, as opposed to Guildhall, or over in Keene as opposed to Brattleboro.”
He cited other cross-border towns that are doing stronger economically than their Vermont counterparts, and suggested that the media has done very little to report on the difference.
“I would implore these news organizations to take a drive down one side of the Connecticut River and then come back up the other side … and ask the question that is apparently not being asked by proponents of legislation such as this.”
McCoy cited other problems, including studies that show how people currently making close to $15 an hour will demand that their wages increase as well, adding further strain on employers.
“We don’t even know what the financial impact of this will be,” she said. “How will this impact K-12 education, or our higher education institutions, or our nonprofits, designated agencies and other nongovernmental organizations? The cost will be dramatic, and in many cases unbearable.”
Harrison reiterated that everyone wants higher wages, just not by legislative mandate.
“An edict from Montpelier doesn’t do it,” he said. “Ninety percent of Vermont businesses employ less than 20 employees — these are the bread and butter of what makes Vermont Vermont.”
Harrison said that competition for labor should drive up wages in a more sustainable way, and Turner noted that the state has very low unemployment right now (2.9 percent), and some of this wage competition may already be having a positive impact.