Controversy is cooking over wages at the new Skinny Pancake restaurants that are due to land at the Burlington International Airport next year.
Many are excited for local food options to become available behind security but some are upset that elected officials allowed owners to bypass Burlington's livable wage requirements.
Former Progressive city councilor and livable wage advocate Emma Mulvaney-Stanak says she's disappointed that the city's board of finance granted the eatery an exemption. "I'm mainly concerned because it's a real roll-back in terms of what Burlington has done in terms of livable wages," she said.
City ordinance dictates that those who contract with the city must pay employees $13 an hour if they have health benefits and more than $17 if not. The rule also applies to those who lease space at the airport. Businesses may apply for an exemption if they can demonstrate the requirement would create significant hardship.
Skinny Pancake co-owner Benjy Adler says the requirements are impossible to meet. "I don't know a single restaurant in Burlington, and I don't know a single restaurant in the state of Vermont that can afford their starting dishwasher - on day one - at $17.72 an hour," he said.
Adler says high rent and nearly 70 percent locally-sourced foods mean slim margins at the airport even without higher wages. A $25 sandwich would balance the books but isn't an appetizing choice for anyone. "We define ourselves as a socially responsible business, I mean to our core, and the sad reality is we can't make the numbers work," said Adler.
The process to find a new business for the airport took more than a year. Over that time, city officials say confusion abounded as to whether livable wage standards would apply to the airport. They asked the four businesses who submitted applications to submit two proposals, one that didn't account for livable wage requirements and one that did.
Airport commissioners say the Skinny Pancakes application blew away the competition. Adler says Skinny Pancake had been selected, and invested more than $40,000 in the project before it became clear that livable wages would indeed apply.
The Skinny Pancake is only the second business to be granted an exemption - along with T.D. Bank which handles the city's financial accounts. Elected officials say applications for such an exemption are rare as well.
Eateries currently in the airport are not subject to the requirement because they were in place before the livable wage ordinance passed about a decade ago. Mayor Miro Weinberger said it would be unfair to expect Skinny Pancake to play by a different set of rules. "There's no other food establishment in Burlington or at the airport that's required to pay a livable wage," said Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger.
Weinberger says with contractors, the cost of employee wage increases can be passed onto the city when accounted for in bids. As a lessee, that option doesn't exist for a restaurant.
The mayor says he, and the four councilors who serve on the board of finance, don't always see-to-eye politically but voted unanimously for an exemption in the case of Skinny Pancake. "Every person who looked at it thought, you know, this is one of those rare cases where an exemption makes sense," he explained.
Car rental businesses that signed airport deals in the recent past have complied with livable wage requirements.
Stanak says granting exemptions detracts from the city's efforts to ensure residents make enough to live on, and worries the exemption may become the rule. She cites City Market as an example of a business that worked with the council to find a path to meeting livable wage requirements when it couldn't initially. Stanak says she wishes the board had considered more options.
The Skinny Pancake will need to fork over 10 percent of sales dollars to Burlington International for rent. Administrators say it's unfeasible for the airport to cut the rate in order to enable the company to pay employees more.
Adler says the employees at the new locations will likely make between $12 and $13 an hour. He says he is hopeful full bars at the new restaurants will boost tips and employee take home pay.