Thursday, July 3, 2014

Local Accountability for Living Wage Enforcement: Burlington Takes a New Tack

How can localities move beyond symbolic human rights measures to ensure actual implementation and results?  Co-editor Mariah McGill reports on a promising new development in living wage enforcement that may provide a model for others.  Writes Mariah:

As Fran Quigley recently noted, the issue of a livable wage is being raised in communities throughout the United States. In recent months, a variety of states and cities have passed laws and ordinances establishing higher minimum wages to address high costs of living and increasing inequality across the country.

The City of Burlington, Vermont passed just such an ordinance in 2001. Under the ordinance, employers who have contracts with the City of Burlington must pay a minimum hourly wage of almost $14 per hour if they offer employer-sponsored health insurance and almost $16 per hour if no health insurance benefits are offered.

While the goals of the Burlington ordinance were laudable, the measure was “mainly symbolic.” According to a 2013 report, the City of Burlington largely failed to enforce the ordinance for the first twelve years of its existence. In light of the new report, Burlington recently revised its ordinance to create and fund an independent accountability monitor that would educate employees about their rights under the ordinance, staff an employee hotline, investigate complaints and refer legitimate employee complaints to the City Attorney. On Monday, June 23rd, the Burlington City Council appointed the Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC) as the Designated Accountability Monitor for the livable wage ordinance for one year.

The Center is a grassroots organization who has adopted a human rights framework for their organizing and advocacy efforts and has played a pivotal role in a number of progressive legislative victories including single-payer health care and universal pre-school. VWC played a role in getting the original ordinance passed and in updating the ordinance in 2014. Given their commitment to the livable wage issue and the strong grassroots network they already have in place, the Workers’ Center is poised to help finally ensure compliance.

As Burlington’s experience indicates, the passage of a livable wage ordinance is not sufficient to protect peoples’ economic rights. Currently, only a few of the municipalities with livable wage ordinances on the books actually monitor compliance. Upon conclusion of its one year contract with the City of Burlington, the VWC must submit a report to the City reporting its progress in monitoring compliance with the ordinance. It will be interesting to see whether an independent monitor actually results in more employers complying with the ordinance and whether the Center successfully incorporates the human rights framework into the trainings, outreach and other activities. Burlington’s experience may prove helpful for other communities who want to ensure that the livable wage ordinances they pass actually work as promised.

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