Melissa Gelinas of the Peace & Justice Center calls for changes to Burlington's livable-wage ordinance Thursday night. Photo by Taylor Dobbs.
A handful of speakers urged a Burlington City Council committee Thursday evening to put some teeth into the city's livable-wage ordinance.
Adopted 12 years ago but largely unenforced, the ordinance became the subject of a heated debate last November after the Skinny Pancake was granted an exemption to the rule when it opened a new restaurant at the city-owned Burlington International Airport.
The ordinance requires companies receiving $15,000 in city contracts to pay their employees a livable wage — $13.94 an hour for employees provided health insurance or $15.83 for employees without. A 55-page report issued in April by City Attorney Eileen Blackwood found that only 23 of 160 companies with contracts subject to the ordinance were in compliance.
Thursday night, at the Burlington Police Department's community room, the council's three-member ordinance committee continued its review of the rule, with an eye toward improving its enforcement. But at least one speaker was displeased with the committee's progress.
“It seems that as a governing body you three have not taken ownership of the concept or philosophy of livable wage,” said Peace & Justice Center representative Melissa Gelinas. “The conversation seems to revolve around trying to understand what was the original intent of the city councilors that passed this ordinance rather than how to make sure that the city supports all workers' ability to meet their basic needs.”
The majority of public comments at the meeting sounded more like pleas.
One woman who works at the airport said that while she and her husband are both paid in accordance with Burlington’s ordinance and making it work most months, their peers with children are under more pressure.
“My point is that the money disappears quickly,” she said, “and some months we’re forced to dig into our savings account.”
The woman, who asked Seven Days not to print her name or that of her employer for fear she would lose her job, said she thought critics of the ordinance didn’t understand the pressures facing low-income workers.
“The livable wage is not getting anybody rich,” she said. “It’s simply allowing those who make it to get by.”
Stricter enforcement is on the way, said ordinance committee chairman Chip Mason.
“I think what we heard from the city attorney’s report as well as discussion tonight is, in essence, trying to propose changes that put some teeth into the ordinance,” he said, “because it was on the books, but no one was adhering to it because it wasn’t being enforced.”
Mason said the committee was considering two key changes to the ordinance’s enforcement policy.
“We talked about putting in a complaint process as well as a cause of action for an aggrieved employee who wasn’t being paid his or her livable wage,” he said.
Mason said his committee would likely present proposed amendments to the rest of the city council at their September 9 meeting.
Currently, employees who aren’t being paid a livable wage don’t have a single point of contact within city government to whom they can take complaints. Mayor Miro Weinberger and others have advocated for the creation of such a position.
Businesses in violation of the ordinance are subject to fines of up to $500 per day for each employee paid under the livable wage, but City Attorney Blackwood said such fines have never been levied since the ordinance passed in 2001.
“We call them up and say, ‘You’re not paying livable wage. Pay it!’” Blackwood said. “That’s how it’s worked.”