House Democrats' Angst Over $15 Minimum Wage Prompts Search For Compromise

May 7, 2019

As leaders in the Vermont House of Representatives struggle to galvanize support for legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, some lawmakers have begun pushing for a less aggressive alternative.

On paper at least, Vergennes Rep. Matt Birong looks like the kind of Democrat who could be counted on to support the $15 minimum wage bill.

He was a delegate for Bernie Sanders in 2016, and he’s one of the freshman legislators that rode a blue wave to victory in a 2018 election that saw Democrats pick up 12 seats in the Vermont House of Representatives.

But two weeks ago, when the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs cast a key vote on legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, Birong was a notable 'no.'

"I'm all for increasing the minimum wage," Birong said Tuesday. "My biggest concerns with the $15 minimum wage by 2024 was pretty much the timeline."

Birong is not alone with those concerns; as Democratic leaders in the Vermont House have learned over the past few weeks, many members of their caucus aren't entirely on board with one of their party's top priorities.

"If a person is working full time, they shouldn't be living in poverty," said Bellows Falls Rep. Matt Trieber. "That being said … if we move up too quickly, we could run into some economic issues."

That trepidation seems to be resonating with House leaders. House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski indicated Tuesday that the $15 figure could be malleable.

"What we are focusing on this week is finding a path forward so that we can make sure that we can give Vermonters a raise," Krowinski said. "And whether that is 15 [dollars] on the mark, I don't know."

"What we are focusing on this week is finding a path forward so that we can make sure we can give Vermonters a raise. And whether that is 15 [dollars] on the mark, I don't know." — Vt. House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski

The $15 minimum wage bill has deep support in the Senate, where lawmakers passed it by a two-to-one margin back in February. But many House Democrats are more skeptical.  

Birong, who owns a restaurant in Vergennes, said he's fielded calls from progressive-minded business owners who support a minimum wage boost in concept, but worry the Senate bill moves too aggressively.

"These are people and businesses that supported concepts like paid sick days and paid family leave," Birong said. "And when that demographic, that crowd, is raising concerns, I felt like I had to listen to them."

Trieber said he worries about the effect of the $15 minimum wage on community-based health providers that won’t necessarily have the resources to accommodate higher payroll costs.

More from VPR — A 'Simple Math Problem': $15 Minimum Wage Bill Has Vt. Health Providers On Alert [May 6]

Last year, the House passed a $15 minimum wage bill — but only by the slimmest of margins.

With House leaders eying a similarly close vote in 2019, they're entertaining the possibility of a minimum wage compromise that could win 'yes' votes from more members of their caucus.

What that compromise looks like exactly remains to be seen. Birong is pushing a plan that would double the annual rate of minimum wage growth in current law.

Trieber said he’s intrigued.

"My personal goal, and I won't speak for anything else, is to get to a point where I can vote for something that will help Vermonters increase their wages," Trieber said.

If lawmakers end up arriving at a more modest minimum wage bill, they may find a willing partner in Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who vetoed last year’s minimum wage bill.

Administration officials say Scott is open to signing a less aggressive increase in the minimum wage, which could obviate the need for Democrats to try to override another veto.