Moulton: Paid sick days good for Vermont’s economy

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Melinda Moulton, the CEO of Main Street Landing in Burlington.

No one should fear losing a job or wages because of an illness.

Main Street Landing has had a paid leave policy for 30 years and our employees know that if they need the time to heal or care for a loved one, they can do so without loss of wages.

That’s why I’m supporting H.208, a new bill under consideration at the Vermont Legislature, that guarantees workers paid time off if they are sick or need to care for a close loved one with an illness. Right now, there is no law or regulation that supplies workers with this necessary benefit.

Paid leave is not just an idea that benefits the worker – it also makes for a stronger workplace and improves the Vermont economy. Sick or distracted employees are not productive and risk infecting other workers with contagious illnesses. From a business perspective, when employees stay home to heal, the costs for health care, workplace contagion, and turnover are reduced and productivity is enhanced.

I know I’m not alone in providing paid leave benefits to employees. Businesses of all sizes across Vermont offer a similar benefit

Over the years, the cost to Main Street Landing to provide this benefit has been very small compared to the benefit of overall better health and wellbeing, loyalty and general happiness of our employees. If and when they are sick or need to care for a loved one, they have the confidence and peace of mind to know that they can do that and not lose income.

I know I’m not alone in providing paid leave benefits to employees. Businesses of all sizes across Vermont offer a similar benefit. Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, a statewide organization dedicated to sustainable business practice, approved a new public policy last year endorsing guaranteed paid leave and is lobbying for the legislation at the Statehouse.

“In the absence of paid leave, many families face the possibility of severe debt, bankruptcy or the need for public assistance programs when facing a personal or family health crisis when paid leave policies are not in place,” VBSR’s new policy says.

I could not agree more. But the playing field right now is inconsistent and unfair – while many Vermont employers do offer paid leave, about half of private employers in the state do not. That’s a lot of workers who are one illness away from tragedy.

The bill at the Statehouse is simple: Everyone working in Vermont gets paid leave. As an employee, you earn one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a “maximum” of 56 hours or seven sick days per year. The bill also allows an employee to take care of a sick loved one and obtain diagnostic, routine, preventative or therapeutic health care.

The state of Connecticut and four cities – San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Philadelphia – have passed paid sick days legislation. Many businesses in these communities were worried when the legislation passed that it would make it more difficult to run
their businesses – but the data has shown no slowed job growth or reduced profitability. After several years, businesses agree: This is good for our employees, good for public health and good for the economy.

For a very small investment by Vermont businesses, all Vermonters could benefit.

The paid leave bill coming before the Legislature will insure that public health is improved, hourly workers have much greater economic stability, employee turnover is reduced, and most importantly, businesses will enjoy an increase in employee loyalty and satisfaction. I hope you will join me in supporting this bill.

Comments

  1. Jamal Kheiry :

    Ms. Moulton,

    It’s fantastic that your business provides such great benefits to employees, and that so many other businesses also choose to do so. But your advocacy of a bill that would force others to do as you are doing ignores the possibility that some businesses have good reasons for running things the way they do. Maybe they can provide EITHER that benefit OR some other benefit that they can afford and their employees appreciate, but not both. Maybe their businesses run very close to breakeven and they can’t afford to provide that benefit at all.

    Regardless of the reasons, your assumption seems to be that they’re not providing this benefit out of simple greed, heartlessness, or ignorance; your proposed “solution” removes their flexibility and applies a one-size-fits-all solution by force.

  2. Steven Farnham :

    What – are you suggesting that we treat employees with dignity and respect? You must be a communist.

    • Jamal Kheiry :

      Mr. Farnham,

      To be specific, the author isn’t “suggesting” that we treat employees with dignity and respect. She is, in fact, advocating that her idea of such treatment should be forced on all other employers in the state, whether or not it fits their or their employees’ needs.

      She makes a strong case for the benefits she advocates by noting how it has made her business stronger. That’s valid. But then she presumes to know that it would do the same for all other workplaces, and based on that flawed premise, that all other workplaces should be forced into it. That’s not in the least valid.

    • Steven Farnham :

      If requiring employees to work while ill isn’t abuse, I don’t know what is, and I should know – I’ve worked with a fever so intense I could barely stand up – had to. No work – no pay. Miss too many days – no job. And I got that fever from another employee who came to work sick as dog for the same reason. Hey – why not spread the joy around?

      It’s so inconvenient isn’t it? If it weren’t for those pesky laws, men could abuse women with impunity. Now some damn fool wants to make it illegal for business to abuse their employees… What is the world coming to?

      You know, Mr. Kheiry, if there were not so many employers, managers, and supervisors who were such abysmal failures at managing their own greed… if there weren’t so many that are consistently ruthless, and mercilessly demanding… we wouldn’t need such a law, now would we?

      If you never needed to work while sick your argument has no defence. And if you have been forced to work while sick, then your argument is just plain insane… again.

      • Jamal Kheiry :

        Mr. Farnham,

        I’ve had to work sick more times than I can count. By your standard, I am therefore insane and my arguments can be safely ignored.

      • Steven Farnham :

        My use of the word “insane” was in reference to your argument, not you personally. The statement alleging your personal insanity, just for the record, belongs in the bin labelled “You said it – I didn’t.”

        I’d like to respond to your statement “I’ve had to work sick more times than I can count.”

        “Working sick” needs more detailed definition. Let us call it “working sick under duress,” where “duress” suggests loss of pay or benefits, retaliation, punishment, or bad marks on your performance review for failing to show up regardless of health. For my argument, working sick sans duress, i.e. voluntarily doesn’t count. Whether it makes you über-competitive, or idiotic, I do not know, but the point is – it’s your choice, and it doesn’t count.

        If you’ve been up vomiting all night, and at 08:00 in the morning, throw on a robe and slippers and shuffle bleary-eyed to the room across the hall from your bedroom, switch on the computer and work from your home office – fine with me. You reason that you won’t recover any faster sitting in front of the television or with a mystery novel in your hand, and that, indeed, sitting up and knocking off a couple assignments from work might distract your mind from how miserable you feel. As needed, you can periodically revisit the bathroom, and if you get to the point where you can’t sit up any more, you can always drag yourself back to the bed and crawl in. While technically speaking this is “working sick,” if it’s voluntary, for my argument, it doesn’t count.

        If you are a sole proprietor or partner in a firm and feel you must work to meet a contract deadline or court date, (and avoid a near-certain loss of pay), that is your choice. A choice you may argue, that is made “under duress,” but in this case, you are the authority – you are your own boss – you have much more power over your options. You misjudged the time needed for the work, or didn’t allow for contingencies (illness); one could argue that, in this case, if you need to work while sick, it’s your own fault.

        If the situation in which you “…had to work sick more times than [you] can count” resembles one of the above hypotheticals, then IMHO, your argument against mandatory paid sick leave is disingenuous. My argument is geared to defending those who are in a position they cannot defend by themselves. If you have been in that situation and stand by your argument that there is no need for a law, then I would declare that your argument comes from a position of insanity.

        When you have relatively little (or no) ownership stake in the business; when you report to a boss who has absolute power over you; there is need to keep that power in check.

        Because I took the time to further narrow the definition of “working sick,” to “working sick under duress,” I may have, in a way, agreed with your position that mandated paid sick leave may not be appropriate in all situations. However – there are plenty of places where it is appropriate and paid sick isn’t happening. And it won’t – until there is a law. After all, if it would happen without the force of law, it would already be happening, now wouldn’t it?

        • Jamal Kheiry :

          Mr. Farnham,

          I appreciate your clarification. I don’t disagree with your points regarding working sick under duress. In my case, it has always been my choice to work sick, in order to meet deadlines or other expectations, and therefore not analogous to the situation you describe.

          It is indeed unreasonable, in my opinion, for employers or supervisors to require employees to work when they are sick or need to take care of a loved one. However, I don’t believe the government should force employers to “do the right thing,” let alone define the details of how to execute that right thing.

          Prevent them from committing crimes, yes. Force them to have a conscience, no.

    • Steven Farnham :

      Likewise, I appreciate your concession, limited though it is.

      When you write, “It is indeed unreasonable, in my opinion, for employers or supervisors to require employees to work when they are sick or need to take care of a loved one,” it appears that you are missing some of the problem.

      Employers do not necessarily “…REQUIRE employees to work when they are sick or need to take care of a loved one.” It isn’t necessarily clearly written. Or if it is – it isn’t necessarily consistently enforced. What is more likely is you can take time off, but you wont get sick pay. And if you take too much time, your boss will tell you that your services are no longer needed.

      If missing pay means you cannot afford your food and rent, then you must work – sick or not. In this way, the employer is enforcing a de facto policy of “you must work even if sick.”

      I will reluctantly concede that if a person’s salary, benefits or wages are high enough, we could allow the employer to deny pay on sick time. I will also concede that if sick time is paid, it might be acceptable to pay a slightly lower salary or wage.

      The trouble with this logic is, by the time the salary is high enough so that one could survive without paid sick time, paid sick time is usually included as an employee benefit anyway. In the lower wage jobs, employers have had it both ways for too long.

      You further comment that you “…don’t believe the government should force employers to ‘do the right thing’.” Really? If (by whatever means) employers are forcing people to work sick, and we’re going to take government out of the equation, then by what means is the employee to seek justice and fair and reasonable working conditions? The tooth fairy?

      If you believe that the government’s role is to “…prevent [employers] from committing crimes,” then at last I believe you and I are in agreement. For indeed, it is a crime to compensate someone so poorly that he cannot afford a few days off when sick.

  3. Jim Barrett :

    Another person who wants to dictate their desires to everyone else……..!

  4. Dave Bellini :

    The Vermont Department of Corrections continues to operate prisons with temporary employees and they have no sick days or health insurance. Many of these “temps” work 40 hours a week for months or years. 49 other states operate their prisons without “temps.”

    The state of Vermont isn’t willing to give sick days to all its full time employees. No Governor, nor any legislator, has ever been willing to tackle this.

    The state spends millions training correctional officers only to see most of them quit. Naturally, who wants to work a dangerous, thankless, job without sick days, health insurance or vacation. I challenge the politicians who talk about bringing health insurance to all Vermonters to begin in their own back yard.

    Of course, convicted murderers, child molesters and rapists are treated to 100% free medical care. Many of the people that protect society from the most dangerous criminals get nothing.

  5. Employers who value their workforce can quite easily protect their budget and the health of their employees.

    By investing in wired networking, healthy lighting and reducing unnecessary exposure to electromagnetic fields, not only will people have stronger immune systems to fend off the inevitable seasonal malady, but they will be much less likely to call in sick when they really just need a break from an unhealthy environment.

    Sick building syndrome is no longer just about mold and formaldehyde.

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