MONTPELIER — With the aim of passing legislation during the 2014 session, a broad coalition of advocacy groups has begun to ramp up a yearslong push to require Vermont employers to provide paid sick days.
At a news conference Thursday outside the Red Hen Bakery and Café in Middlesex, a crowd of supporters, many from the Vermont Workers’ Center, cheered lawmakers who vowed to push for immediate action on a bill that would mandate a minimum of seven paid sick days for full-time employees.
Carlen Finn, executive director of Voices for Vermont’s Children, said roughly 60,000 Vermont workers don’t get paid when they’re too ill to come to work. She said that affects not only individual families but also the communities that inevitably pick up the tab for the broader social costs.
“For those that don’t have the economic flexibility to miss a day of work unpaid, this means that people are going to work sick, sending their children to school and child care sick, and forgoing necessary medical care,” Finn said. “Guaranteed paid sick time benefits everyone.”
Organizations representing children, seniors, labor and low-income residents have galvanized around the legislation, variations of which have been kicking around the Statehouse for years.
Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, a Burlington Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said 35 sponsors of the bill are laying the political groundwork early for what looks to be a heavy lift in Montpelier.
“I think it is important we start early. We’re in the second year of the biennium, with a 16-week session, and we in the House have to get up very quick on our feet … so that we can indeed have a law on the books by July 1,” Donovan said.
The chief obstacle to the legislation remains the business interests that have lobbied against a mandate they say would impose a “one-size-fits-all” solution on companies that ought to be able to craft their own approach.
Betsy Bishop, executive director of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday that most businesses already provide some kind of paid time off.
“And those employers have spent a good deal of time talking about what would work for their business model,” Bishop said. “For all of the different types of businesses out there, we think it’s best left up to employers to decide what is appropriate for a full-time or part-time employee.”
Asked about the legislation Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin wouldn’t offer his position. While he said he’s a “longtime supporter of paid family leave,” he also said he’s reluctant to make employers subsidize the benefit.
“One of the things our workforce is struggling with is when they have a sick child or sick family member, being able to give them the care they deserve,” Shumlin said. “The challenge has always been how do you pay for it. And how do you make it work?”
Supporters of the bill say the benefit should be considered a cost of doing business. Randy George, who with his wife owns Red Hen, said that before he started offering paid sick time three years ago, he didn’t think the benefit “was feasible for our business.”
In fact, George said, the move has reduced employee turnover and improved productivity and morale.
“I now view paid sick days like minimum wage laws, the 40-hour workweek and other similar laws,” George said. “This is a benefit that will benefit us all as a community.”
Lindsay DesLauriers, public policy associate at Voices for Vermont Children, said the proposed legislation would increase gross payroll expenses by 1 percent to 2.5 percent, depending on how much of the paid sick time employees used. The legislation would prorate paid sick time for part-time employees based on the number of hours worked per week.
Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, a vocal supporter of paid sick time who was on hand for Thursday’s news conference, said Vermonters should reject the argument that the legislation constitutes undue intrusion on employers’ rights to run their businesses as they see fit.
“We have traffic lights in this world — they could be considered government intrusions that tell us when we have to stop and when we have to go,” Kunin said. “Some government measures are good for everyone and keep us safe and keep us healthy.”
Rep. Jill Krowinski, a Burlington Democrat, said legislative diligence alone won’t be enough to get the bill through the Statehouse next year. She said constituents will have to demand action in phone calls, letters and emails to their legislators.
“We need your help. We can’t do it alone,” Krowinski said. “If you believe sick people should stay home and get healthy rather than go to work and get other people sick, we need your help.”
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