LIVING WAGE: When ‘minimum’ doesn’t cut it

Fairfield woman serves as advocate for sick days, too

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Staff Writer

Just
The Facts

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To me it’s not just a monetary issue.

- Heather Getty, of Fairfield

FAIRFIELD — When she isn’t working at one of her two jobs, raising her four children, or attending college full time, Heather Getty, of Fairfield, is an advocate for paid sick days for all workers and for an increase in the minimum wage.

Although her current full-time job working with young families at Northwestern Counseling & Support Services (NCSS) offers benefits, including paid sick days, Getty spent much of her adult life working in low wage fields with no such benefits. Getty wanted to be clear that her views are not necessarily those of NCSS.

In addition to her job with NCSS, Getty has a part-time job and is a full-time working towards a masters degree in counseling. She has moved away from the days when money concerns were so daunting, but still, she recalls those times vividly.

Having worked in fields such as food service, retail and as a personal care attendant for the disabled and elderly, Getty knows first hand what happens when someone can’t take a sick day.

“When I would get sick, I couldn’t take a day because I couldn’t afford to lose wages,” said Getty.

During a bout of the flu, Getty wore gloves and a mask on the advice of her supervisor while taking care of elderly clients. One of those clients contracted the flu. While it took Getty only a few days to recover, it took her client three to four weeks.

“To me it’s not just a monetary issue. It’s an overall health issue as well,” said Getty.

When her one year old had a fever and couldn’t go to daycare, Getty had her oldest child stay home from school to watch his younger sister. The family couldn’t afford for Getty to miss a day’s work.

Getty spoke at the International Women’s Day March for Women’s Dignity in Montpelier on March 8 about the “struggles I faced in low wage jobs trying to make ends meet.”

The march was organized by the Vermont Worker’s Center to draw attention to the disproportionate impact that the lacks of paid sick days and low wages have on women, explained James Haslam, the center’s director.

“Women still play a tremendous caregiving role in families in the home and in the community,” said Haslam. Without paid sick days women are forced to choose between caring for ill family members and potentially losing their jobs by taking a day off.

Women also dominate the caring professions. The three lowest paid occupations in the country all involve caring for others and all are dominated by women.

Child-care workers are the lowest paid workers nationally, and women hold 95 percent of those jobs. Women hold 89 percent of the jobs in the second lowest paid occupation – home health aides—and 88 percent of all housekeeping jobs.

In Vermont, and nationally, two-thirds of the jobs paying minimum wage are held by women, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). Raising the minimum wage to $10.10, as both President Obama and Gov. Peter Shumlin have proposed, would give 27,000 Vermont women a pay increase of $220 per month. Overall, 38,300 Vermont workers would receive a wage increase, according to the White House.

Getty knows first hand what such an increase would mean.

Even though she and her husband both worked full time – he earned more than she did – the family often struggled to pay all of the monthly bills, sometimes having to choose between rent and utilities.

Asked what the additional wages acquired through a higher minimum wage would have meant for her family, Getty said they wouldn’t have had to worry about how to pay the monthly electric bill. There were times when the family lost phone service and electricity because they couldn’t pay the bill.

Money for heat and transportation was also an issue. “We also ran out of fuel several times in one of our homes,” said Getty.

“That’s a big deal for families,” said Getty of a higher minimum wage.  “I don’t know how anyone is able to support their family and live independently with the cost of rent and fuel, too.”

Wages and benefits

Raising the minimum wage also can help close the wage gap between men and women. Nationally, women earn just 77.6 cents for every dollar earned by men. But that gap is smaller in states with higher minimum wages, including Vermont where women earn 84.9 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to data from NWLC.

The Vermont Worker’s Center wants to see the minimum wage increased to a livable wage of $12.50 an hour.

State economist Thomas Kavet testified before the Vermont Legislature that such a steep increase could lead to 3,200 lost jobs, as employers cut positions they could no longer afford. Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 could lead to 250 job losses.

Kavet acknowledged the exact impact is difficult to predict because such as large increase has never been attempted before.

Haslam pointed to the lack of precedents, saying, “They don’t really know.”

Particularly difficult to determine is the impact of the additional $30 million in wages Vermont workers would earn with a minimum wage increase to $10.10.

“When you raise wages increase that money goes right back into the economy,” said Haslam. Low-income workers are likely to spend those additional wages on necessities purchased locally. “It’ll be a big economic stimulus,” said Haslam.

Some of the job losses may be from people who are working multiple jobs reducing the number of jobs they work, Haslam added.

Kavet also pointed out that with higher wages, workers will qualify for fewer benefits such as food stamps, child care and fuel assistance. The lost benefits could potentially be greater than the increased wages.

“It’s something that, quite frankly, needs to be addressed right now,” Haslam said of the so-called ‘benefits cliff.’

Recipients losing more in benefits such as child care and fuel assistance than they gain by accepting a raise or promotion, is one that has been discussed extensively in Montpelier in the past, but never resolved in part because income limits for many programs are determined by the federal government.

More than 600 economists, including economists at the University of Vermont and Middlebury College, have endorsed the proposal to raise the national minimum wage. Also signing a letter supporting the minimum wage increase were eight former presidents of the American Economic Association and seven Nobel Prize winners.

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