Vermont lawmakers call for ‘economic rights’

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - A group of Vermont lawmakers called Tuesday for a new “bill of economic rights,” including a significantly higher minimum wage, guaranteed paid sick days and a requirement that employers have just cause before firing anyone.

Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive, said the measures were aimed at narrowing a widening gap between rich and poor in Vermont. Pearson pointed to a chart showing changes in income for various brackets from 2011 to 2012. It showed those making more than $1 million saw their incomes grow by 18.6 percent on average, while those making between $15,000 and $20,000 saw them drop by an average of 2.6 percent.

“I would not have the courage to create this if I were creating propaganda, so I’m very grateful to the Vermont Department of Taxes for providing this data,” Pearson said.

Pearson was joined by Democrats, an independent and one Republican at the news conference calling for the changes.

He said he would like the minimum wage to reach $15 an hour, up from the current $8.73 an hour. Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre, said he would like to see the minimum raised to $12.50. But when questioned about the difference with Pearson’s figure, Poirier said he could support a $15 hourly wage.

Rep. Francis “Topper” McFaun, a Barre Town Republican, said he also supports a minimum wage hike partly to find out what effect it would have on jobs and the unemployment rate.

The group also called for legally guaranteed paid sick leave, which would be a first for Vermont. The proposal would allow workers to accrue one hour of paid time off for each 30 hours worked, up to 56 hours - or seven days - per year. Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, said she also wanted workers who are victims of domestic violence to be able to get paid time off.

Rob Roper, president of the free-market-oriented think tank Ethan Allen Institute, said in an interview later that a higher minimum wage would be a jobs killer.

“They’re going to increase unemployment if they raise the minimum wage,” he said.

But the data on that question appear mixed.

Vermont’s current $8.73 minimum is higher than the federally required wage of $7.25, while its unemployment rate in December was lower - 4.2 percent - compared to the national rate of 5.7 percent.

After Vermont’s minimum wage climbed 28 cents to $7.53 an hour effective Jan. 1, 2007, that year saw the state’s unemployment rate climb from 3.9 percent in January to 4.1 percent in December, according to figures from the state Department of Labor. But in Vermont’s biggest jump so far this century - 50 cents to $6.75 - took effect in January of 2004, joblessness dropped that year from 4.1 percent to 3.5 percent.

Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan noted in an interview that other factors, including seasonal fluctuations and overall economic conditions, also influence the unemployment rate.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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