Just moments after the Burlington City Council voted on a new redistricting plan last night, its members dove headfirst into an even thornier issue: the city's livable wage ordinance.
For the last several months, the council’s three-member ordinance committee has been consulting with employers, city agencies, nonprofit organizations and the public to hammer out a set of amendments to a city law originally passed in 2001, ordinance committee chair Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) explained last night.
As envisioned, the ordinance was meant to guarantee a livable wage to employees of the city or any company with which it contracts. Right now, Burlington defines “livable” as $13.94 an hour for companies that offer health insurance and $15.83 for those that don't.
Controversy erupted last fall when the city’s finance committee awarded local restaurant Skinny Pancake an exemption for its restaurants at the airport. The uproar prompted Mayor Miro Weinberger to order an investigation that found just 14 percent of the city’s contractors were paying its employees in full compliance with the ordinance. Some came around only after the city began its review.
Last night the full council heard the committee's proposed changes for the first time. Besides removing the “unique treatment of these properties at the airport” and the “inclusion of temporary, seasonal employees… who have provided a certain number of years of service” in the package of reforms, Mason announced that the new ordinance would provide legal and educational mechanisms for employees to learn about and claim livable wage.
Mason’s committee also proposed greater oversight by the city council over companies that are granted exemptions.
Two questions dominated the discussion: How long before the city could award a livable wage to its seasonal employees? And should these rules apply to businesses operating at Burlington International Airport?
In a public comment period before the general council meeting, businesses and groups advocating for worker rights offered differing opinions, and parallel fault lines emerged in the council’s ensuing debate.
Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) began the comment period by questioning why employers operating out of the airport hadn’t provided detailed wage information at the council’s request. “We… have not received at any point specific information from airlines regarding what they’re paying and how they would be affected by these provisions, and that’s very troubling,” Tracy said.
Tracy made a motion to propose an amendment that would reinstate a sentence struck from the most recent draft of the ordinance that would define entities using airport property as city contractors. Although several councilors seconded Tracy’s call for more transparency on the part of the airlines, the group voted down his amendment 4-10.
“On the matter of the airport, it was a little disappointing not getting a little more information, but at the end of the day.... we have to acknowledge that as a city we’re competing with other cities, with other airports,” said Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Ward 2).
Councilor Rachel Siegel (P-Ward 3) used her comments at the end of the reading to credit the accountability measures in the new ordinance but she disagreed with its special treatment of airlines.
“That we’d give a blanket exemption for the multimillion dollar corporations?” Siegel asked rhetorically. “That we're asking small businesses to apply for an exemption? That we have an exemption process in place, and we’re giving a pass to the corporations? I find it completely offensive.”
An amendment still included in the proposed ordinance bans airport employers from reducing wages below livable standards for eligible employees.
The council also debated how long it should take seasonal employees to qualify for livable wage. After a meeting between ordinance committee members last week, two competing amendments emerged. Councilor Karen Paul (I-Ward 6) proposed that any seasonal employee who has worked more than 10 hours per week in Burlington for at least four years should qualify.
Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) proposed that the city gradually reduce the residency requirement over the next three years. Defining her measure as a “phase-in,” Bushor suggested it would be designed in consultation with all affected agencies and be financed by the city’s general fund.
“We want to be a model employer. We want to pay a livable wage, and I think that by embracing some seasonal employees, we will do that better,” Bushor said.
But both Paul and the mayor suggested Bushor’s approach would be too costly — to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We are a city at the edge of junk bond status. We are a city straining to meet our existing financial commitments… The change in councilor Bushor’s amendment represents a lot of money,” said Weinberger. “I think councilor Paul’s language, her original underlying amendment, is a modest expansion of our financial credits that we know we can accommodate.”
The councilors voted down Bushor’s amendment 10-4. Then they voted unanimously to refer the draft back to the ordinance committee with Paul’s amendment.
Burlington City Councilor Rachel Siegel refers to a U.S. wealth distribution pyramid for a "big-picture" perspective on the livable wage ordinance debate. Photo courtesy of Charles Eichacker.