As Senate Majority Leader, I have worked hard with my colleagues in the House and Senate to pass a modest minimum wage increase for Vermonters. It was disappointing and frustrating that the governor vetoed it. While we in the Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to override the governor's veto, the override vote in the House—which may take place as soon as this week—is less certain. In all the political back-and-forth, I worry that the story of the minimum wage worker in Vermont is getting lost.
In 1990, I was a recent college graduate working minimum wage jobs in the food service industry in Massachusetts. The minimum wage was around $4. I worked at bakeries, restaurants, and cafes, where I often took home day-old food to supplement my groceries. I carefully counted my tips, because those quarters and dimes were a vital part of my income. They enabled me to put gas in my car and pay for heat for my drafty apartment. I didn't want to ask my parents for money.
I worried a lot about car insurance payments and electric bills. And, as an asthmatic who needed regular prescriptions and doctors' visits, it was scary not having health insurance. All together, it was an unsettling and uncomfortable time in my life. But, as tough as it was, I was lucky to have family and friends who I could rely on in a pinch. As a result of that and other advantages, I was eventually able to move beyond making minimum wage. Many people are not so lucky.
Since that time—in fact, since 1979—wages for 99 percent of Vermont workers have been essentially flat. Only the top 1 percent has seen significant gains. Over the past decade, wages grew by just 1.4 percent, but housing costs increased by almost 10 percent, and childcare costs grew by nearly 20 percent.
Tens of thousands of Vermonters who work minimum wage jobs don't have a safety net. They don't have the security that comes from knowing that if everything falls apart, they still have somewhere to go, someone to turn to. I worry about these workers a great deal. They are our friends and neighbors, and they are my constituents. According to the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office, over 40,000 Vermonters earn minimum wage. That's just over $20,000 a year—not a lot to live on.
We have a good idea who these workers are in Vermont. According to the Economic Policy Institute, most of these workers are over 20 years old. In other words, they are not teenagers trying to make a little cash for pocket money, as opponents of minimum wage increases sometimes claim. Rather, 40 percent of minimum wage earners are the head of their household. We also know from the data that the majority of these workers are not working just part-time. In fact, Vermonters who earn minimum wage are more likely to work full-time than in any other New England state.
The majority of minimum wage workers are also women. Among female minimum wage earners, 60 percent are over 30 years old. This, I think, is a point that has not been emphasized enough in the debate around this bill: minimum wage is a gendered issue. We know that states with a higher minimum wage have a smaller gender pay gap. The pay gap in Vermont is smaller than in many states, but Vermont women still earn just 84 cents for every dollar a man earns. Continuing to narrow that gap would be welcome news to all the female minimum wage earners whose families rely on their meager earnings.
Minimum wage is the most researched topic in economics, and numerous studies indicate that minimum wage increases do not kill jobs. A 2009 meta-analysis of minimum wage studies indicated that moderate minimum wage increases do not negatively impact employment. A 2013 study showed similar results. In fact, a minimum wage increase results in positive economic and social effects: reductions in staff turnover costs, and workers no longer have to work multiple jobs to earn the same wages.
The current minimum wage in Vermont is $10.78; our legislation increases the wage to $11.75 in 2021 and then to $12.55 in 2022. After years of stagnant earnings, these are not outlandish increases. Overriding the governor's veto on this bill will give $5,000 extra over the next two years to the thousands of Vermonters earning low wages, and that money will be directly infused into our economy.
When I worked minimum wage jobs, my co-workers were overwhelmingly women, and even a modest wage increase would have made a big difference in our lives. Vermont can afford to pay our lowest wage workers more, and our state economy and our families will be better for it.
Becca Balint, a Democrat, is the majority leader of the Vermont Senate. She represents the Windham District and lives in Brattleboro.