This is part one of a series which is long past due. This is an ongoing issue that most other media outlets, for some reason, have considered too much of a taboo to investigate and report. Yet, everyone in Vermont is aware of these issues. An honest, public debate on the subject deserves to take front and center.
“Work hard while others sit watching TV” reads one sign along Rte 15 in Essex, Vermont. Another says, “Can’t afford to pay taxes in Vermont“. These are the more gentle of the half dozen or so signs.
Working people in Vermont are fed up. Nobody is listening.
Current Governor Peter Shumlin’s slickly produced TV ads, promoting his re-election campaign, do little to encourage those who have seen high paying jobs decline during his years in office. Add his failed health care debacle to the mix and it’s easy to see why people are disillusioned.
The simple truth is that those who comprise the working, middle class are having a very tough time making ends meet in Vermont. Good paying jobs have been trickling out of the state since the late 1990’s. Meanwhile, fast food restaurants and chain stores have been touted as the saviors of the middle class, every new WalMart promising new jobs for all. Simple math would indicate that a manufacturing job paying $18 per hour in 2001, would provide a reasonable living compared to $9.50 per hour in 2014. The cost of living has skyrocketed in the past 15 years, easily outpacing minimum wage and the dismal salaries paid to employees in 2014.
Low quality wages can results in lower quality employees, but chain stores and restaurants do not seem to mind. Turn over is high as the “meat grinder” continues to eat up and spit out disenfranchised employees, who simply cannot make enough money to make ends meet. An employee at one of the new chain restaurants in Williston, VT said, “I can’t afford to work here anymore. My car is falling apart and I can’t pay the rent and fix my car too on $9.50 per hour.” He continues to look for a better paying job but hasn’t had much luck.
Many of these people often hold two or even three jobs to make ends meet. One woman at a different chain restaurant in the same area stated, “I have a family and my husband works too but he was recently laid off. We’ve both worked hard all our lives and don’t want to accept any welfare. I work 3 jobs, while my husband looks for work. It’s very exhausting, but until he finds something that pays a livable wage, we’re screwed. We’ve worked too long and too hard to lose our home.”
The woman looks tired, with dark circles around her eyes. “It’s not easy working 3 jobs. Two of them are at chain restaurants. During my half hour breaks, I sleep in my car.” She points to her car and says “with winter coming, I hate to have to run the car to stay warm and use gas. Also, that stupid law that Vermont passed about leaving a car idling might end up getting me a fine. It seems that no matter what, the State of Vermont is determined to get us all on welfare.”
She then goes on to explain how many employees at these restaurants feel about their jobs. “I was surprised to start work here and see what goes on. If you knew what was going on in the kitchens, you wouldn’t want to eat in these places.” Her look of discouragement highlights what she says next. “Many of the people here are also on some sort of public assistance or welfare. Their spouses stay home with the kids and they get a hand out from the State of Vermont. They refuse to work overtime, as that will cut into their benefits, or they will lose the welfare. They call me stupid for working 3 jobs, and say that I should just keep one for spending money. Go on welfare to pay living expenses. One guy even bragged about how he was going on vacation with his family soon, saying that if it weren’t for welfare, he couldn’t afford to go. He said that I am stupid for working so hard and that my taxes are paying for his vacation. He though that was funny. I didn’t.”
I asked about the working conditions and which of her 3 jobs she liked best. “My third job is a small one cleaning at a beauty shop. I like that one the best because it’s after hours and nobody hassles me.” I ask her how that contrasts to the restaurant jobs. “I’ve had a few jobs at chains around Burlington and they’re all the same. They pay low wages and attract low quality workers. Many of the cooks are just people off the street and their filthy language and the way they act is certainly not what you’d expect from a professional cook. Many have the attitude that the wages are small so they simply don’t care. They know that management makes much more money and that pisses them off because managers don’t do much. We have a lot of nonsense going on like filthy language, sexual flirting and oh yeah…lots of cigarette breaks! Sometimes it’s not cigarettes they are smoking but pot. There is a lot of sexual infidelity going on too. Sometimes as bold as kissing in the workplace. Can you imagine what the spouse at home would feel like, if they knew what was going on? It’s a sicko world out there these days. Management knows but doesn’t care. People are lazy and have the attitude that if they have to work for small money, they will do the least amount they can get away with. There is a lot of turn over because of this. Management turns a blind eye because if they tell people to work, they quit. Then, the restaurant is desperate to find new help”.
She sighs and takes a breath. “I don’t know why I’m talking about this. Nobody cares. I try to come and do my job, mind my own business and not respond to co-workers who hit on me, talk like they were just released from prison or take from my work station because they are too lazy to prepare their own. It’s very difficult but I do my best. I cry in my car on the way home, because I hate working in these places. But, I don’t want my husband to know because he would make me quit. We just can’t afford it.”
Not so supermarket
Another visit and short conversation at a local supermarket on Shelburne Road with a cashier revealed the following. The cashier was in his 20’s, the only one of just two working and visibly sweating while doing his job. When asked why he didn’t have any help he said, “They’re short on cashiers tonight. I have to hustle though because I can’t afford to lose this job. I’ve been out of college for a few months now but there aren’t many good paying jobs so I do what I can”. I asked how he can afford the high rents around Burlington. “I can’t.” he responds, “I share a small apartment with 3 other guys. They’re in the same boat as me. Sorry, I liked to talk more but as you can see, it’s crazy here.”
These are just a couple of the many similar stories we found. Unfortunately, there are enough of these kind of testimonials to fill a book.
Up next in this series is housing costs. Why the working class is no longer able to afford a “dream home in Vermont” and why the rents are so unbelievably outrageous and unaffordable.
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