Story and video: Ben & Jerry scoop for paid sick leave, minimum wage increase

Activists, legislators and ice cream magnates Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield gathered in the Statehouse on Tuesday afternoon to call on Vermont lawmakers to pass paid sick leave and minimum wage legislation.

The media event followed a half-hour ice cream social at which the Ben & Jerry’s founders scooped up Americone Dream. It also came on the heels of reports that House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, won’t bring the paid sick days bill to the House floor for a vote, despite his support for the mandate.

Political observers have speculated that both instituting paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage is not politically feasible this session.

The skepticism is fueled by the wake of mammoth changes to health insurance, with still more to come as Gov. Peter Shumlin leverages capital to finance the nation’s first single-payer health care system.

Shumlin has favored raising the state’s minimum wage over three years to $10.10 per hour from its current $8.73 per hour. It’s the same boost President Barack Obama is calling for nationally.

Several speakers at Tuesday’s event, organized by the Vermont Workers’ Center, said the paid sick days initiative is not a pawn in negotiations for a higher minimum wage.

“A minimum wage increase cannot be pitted against paid sick days,” said Ashley Moore, a Workers’ Center member and restaurant employee currently working without the benefit of paid sick days. “It’s non-negotiable.”

Activists gather at the Statehouse for a news conference sponsored by Ben & Jerry's to push for paid sick leave laws and a minimum wage raise. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Activists gather at the Statehouse for a news conference sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s to push for paid sick leave laws and a minimum wage raise. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Cohen struck a stronger note.

“When we allow corporations to pay poverty wages and the state makes up the difference, I think it’s criminal,” Cohen said. “I think it should be criminal. And I think the Vermont Legislature has the power to overturn that injustice.”

A spokesman for one of the two organizations leading opposition to both bills, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Vermont, was surprised by the tenor of Cohen’s comment.

AIV vice president William Driscoll said he didn’t think the rhetoric helped further the conversation. Chamber lobbyist Jessica Gingras didn’t immediately offer a response.

Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, said paying a higher wage would be difficult for him and his wife, who operate a small farm with about a dozen employees in the growing season. But implementing the change statewide makes the prospect more tenable, he said, because it will “level the playing field” among business competitors.

A public hearing on the minimum wage increase is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday evening at the Statehouse in Montpelier. Members of the public interested in testifying may sign up starting at 5:30.

Hilary Niles

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