Minimum Wage, yes: Paid Sick Leave, no

Labor leaders around Vermont are putting the full court press on this session on two issues - paid sick leave and boosting the minimum wage. The case for the latter is compelling; for the former, not so much.

We'll deal with the paid sick leave question first. This is one of those cases that sounds reasonable in theory but gets trickier when you try to merge it with the real world. Many employees who work for all but the smallest businesses around the state have some form of paid sick leave, or policies in place that set forth the ground rules. Presumably, most employees sign on to that when they accept a job offer. In most cases, companies don't want a sick employee showing up for work and jeopardizing the health of other workers, anymore than a sick employee feels compelled to drag themself into work. We think this is an example of where allowing private companies to develop their own rules is the way to go (or to stick to). For some really small businesses - those with 10 or fewer employees - being compelled to pay workers for days when they are not physically present is a non-starter financially. We think it's best to let every company and individual work that out the best they can. There's a real danger that if paid sick leave became one more government mandate, smaller firms could choose instead to limit the number of employees, or find "back door" ways around the regulation.

When it comes to raising the federal minimum wage however, we think the time has come to raise it the proposed level of $10.10 per hour, from its present level of $7.25. In Vermont, the state minimum wage is $8.73 per hour. That translates into an annual wage of $18,158; less than $350 per week.

Even a sharp uptick to $10.10 per hour wouldn't get the worker earning a minimum wage back to the buying power his or her counterpart enjoyed in 1968. That would require a step up to $10.51/hour.

The standard concern around raising the minimum wage is that it will cost some of these workers their jobs, especially with smaller companies who operate on thin margins. That may indeed occur. But in the long run, raising the minimum wage is a sure way to pump new money into the economy - workers living at that end of the income spectrum will spend virtually all of it out of necessity. And at a time when the broader economic trends are disproportionately favoring those who are at the opposite end of the economic spectrum - the "1 percenters" - a rise in the minimum wage is only fair. Given the structural changes underway in the economy, it may be the only way many will ever get a raise.

The real concern should be what is going on with those in the broad middle of the economy. Many workers have not enjoyed meaningful raises - or any raises - in years. With unemployment still uncomfortably high, many employers feel capable of replacing workers at any time when even a push for a modest cost-of-living adjustment comes up. Many mid-range employees feel they are fortunate to simply have a job. The most important thing is to get the economy back on a growth track that makes the labor value of those earning between $20,000 a year and let's say $200,000, worth more. A raise for many of these folks is long overdue. For now, raising the minimum wage is the best step available.


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