Opinion – The Tiny State with a Big Heart

by Mary Alice Proffitt

Every day when I wake up and look out my window, I feel grateful that I live in Vermont. Not only do I love the landscape here, the rural way of life, and the old-fashioned, common sense values, I truly feel inspired by the kindness of the people I meet out and about in the community and at my restaurant Down Home Kitchen, on Main Street in Montpelier.

Since first taking the lease three years ago, I have spent countless hours chatting with customers and friends and getting to know them. What I’ve learned is that Vermonters are unpretentious, practical, and cautious while getting to know you but extremely loyal once they do. They are people who don’t make a fuss over what they wear or judge others by the superficial things of life. Unlike the occasional preachiness of many Southerners, whom I grew up with in Georgia, Vermonters tend to walk the walk and not just talk the talk—not because of ideological agendas, but because being a good neighbor is what you do in a rural community.

These values were very much on display during the Jan 25 hearing at the State House on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as proposed in bill S.40. Many folks took to the microphone to talk about their struggles to survive as low-wage workers. I was touched and moved on several occasions, and the general sentiment was expressed well by one young woman who said, “It is impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have boots.” Based on the overwhelming sentiment in the room, it looks likely that this committee will continue working to pass an aggressive increase soon.

Sadly, due to the taxes, fixed costs, utilities, fees, cost of goods, rent, materials, difficulty hiring, and the already skyrocketing costs associated with having 30 employees and owning a food-related business in Vermont, it seems likely that small businesses like mine could be the ones to shutter their windows if consumers don’t take into account the impact of the raise on costs all around.

Already, the number one complaint from customers who live in Montpelier is that my menu is already “too expensive.” And after attempting to pay the vast majority of my adult employees at or above $15/hour for the last year and seeing fifty cents on every dollar go out the door to hourly employees, I can tell you that there is a serious lack of understanding in the community about the extremely high cost of starting and operating a small business in the state of Vermont.

I grew up in a family of nine, working very hard, long hours alongside my parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and our employees all day, every day, and I understand the challenges to small business. Plus, I’m morally opposed to doing business if it can’t be done well. I support the principles behind this minimum wage increase, but as a small business owner trying to be honest with you, I must emphasize that money doesn’t grow on trees or in the pockets of my grandmother’s aprons that I wear each day at work—it has to come from somewhere.

And while Walmart and many established companies are showing the kind of profits that can certainly be distributed more fairly to its workers, for the multitude of small businesses like mine, where the owner is paying off loans (and not themselves) and working long hours alongside staff, it is the customer who is going to have to pay for this increase.

I love living in the capital of this tiny state with a big heart, but I also just want to check in and remind folks so we can fully consent together that someone has to pay for these values. In the end it’s going to be Vermonters.

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