BELLOWS FALLS >> Governor Peter Shumlin showed his support for a local restaurant that pays its employees a $15 per hour minimum wage.
This Livable Wage Press Conference was held at Bellows Falls' very own Popolo eatery. The restaurant's general manager, Gary Smith, invited Shumlin to the restaurant to celebrate three success months of the private business' Living Wage Adjustment initiative. While the Vermont minimum wage is at $9.60, Shumlin showed his support for businesses like Popolo that pay well above that.
"I remember — and it wasn't that long ago — this was an empty building. Many of the buildings on Main Street were empty," Shumlin said from Popolo on Tuesday afternoon. "In the wildest dreams, we the people didn't think a place like Popolo would exist and thrive within our town."
Shumlin went on to say that when he heard about how Popolo pays its employees, he wanted to stop by and "shine some light on it." He also noted that when President Barack Obama called for higher wages across America, "a lot" of governors said "no," but Vermont was one of the first to step up and say "yes" to reaching $10.50 minimum wage by 2018.
He continued to highlight Popolo as a place that is bringing "real equity to folks who work hard every day."
"You shouldn't have to work 40, 50 or 60 hours a week and still be living in poverty," said Shumlin.
Smith said he invited Shumlin over to his restaurant because said he feels it is important to have a discussion about paying higher wages to employees, particularly in the restaurant industry, but also across the board.
"It shows that he is supportive, obviously the governor has signed into law a particular minimum wage structure, and our initiative is somewhat higher than what he's done, but the fact that he's endorsing our efforts, I think shows he cares about the area workers and is at least willing to have a conversation or help stimulate the conversation about what will come after this," said Smith.
The idea of increased wages for Popolo employees was proposed in January when Smith held an annual meeting with some of the restaurant's 25 shareholders. There was no formal vote that took place, but Smith says there was a general consensus to make this change on behalf of the employees. He said the wage increase affects staff that work in the back of the house such as the line cook and dishwasher as well as the busers on the floor and possibly the hosts. At the end of every work week when employees are paid, their wages are calculated and adjusted to $15 an hour by the revenue made from the service charge. However, the Living Wage Adjustment service charge is not applicable to the servers who already make $15 an hour at Popolo.
"I think the important thing for me to say is that the Chicken Little arguments that higher wages can ruin your business or break down the economy or crush the American dream for everyone, are simply not true, at least in the case of Popolo in Bellows Falls." Smith said at the Tuesday afternoon press conference.
In addition to Shumlin's appearance, Smith also welcomed Angela Earle Gray, an employee from Bellows Falls' Chroma Technology, which has existed for more than 26 years.
"The founders of Chroma committed to pay a living wage before they understood what it was," said Gray.
Gray further noted that when Chroma discovered its cleaning company was paying its employees less, Chroma opted to tell the cleaning company that if it wanted to keep its contract with Chroma, it would have to pay the cleaners $15 per hour. That agreement was made, according to Gray.
"We said, 'yup,' the prices are going to go up, but it's worth it to us," said Gray.
Gray went on to say that Chroma Technology fully supports Popolo and its Living Wage Adjustment program. She added that the Bellows Falls area consists of beautiful landscapes and many talented artisans, but she notes that there is more that can be done.
"There are a lot of things we could be doing better, there are a lot of ways we can continue to invest in our community, and the way to do that is to make sure everyone is getting paid appropriately," said Gray. "Working people making appropriate wages are able to invest in the community."
State Sen. Jeanette K. White, D-Windham District, state Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham-3, and Rep Matthew Trieber, D-Windham-3, also made an appearance at the Livable Wage Press Conference on Tuesday. Partridge said she believes that Vermont has taken a "cautious" approach in raising the minimum wage so retailers, merchants and business persons can get used to the idea more gradually than jumping straight to $10.50 per hour. Partridge noted that the food at Popolo is delicious and Trieber said he tries to eat at the restaurant once a week and it's usually crowded at night and on Sundays for brunch.
"I think there's a lot of conversations going on about what the wage should be, and what's particularly interesting about this case is this is a private company that decided to do the right thing for its employees," said Trieber. "And as Gary just said, it was successful, this didn't require the government stepping in, this is just a company doing the right thing and a community supporting it."
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275