Dozens of people affiliated with the Vermont Paid Sick Days Coalition flocked to the Statehouse on Thursday evening to lobby for mandatory paid sick leave for working Vermonters.
Business association lobbyists came too, representing the state’s employers and pushing a firm counter-message: Mandating paid sick leave will hurt Vermont businesses, especially small businesses.
The House General, Military, and Housing Affairs committee took testimony in a two-hour public hearing, alternating between those favoring paid sick leave legislation and those opposed. Those in favor significantly outweighed those opposed.
The legislation, H.208, requires Vermont businesses, regardless of size, to provide up to seven paid sick days a year, if employees work a certain number of hours. Employees can use this time to care for themselves or their family, and also to remedy sexual and domestic violence problems.
Lobbyists for business coalitions, like the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, hold that the bill forces a “one-size-fits-all” mandate upon employers which is neither necessary nor appropriate.
“Any type of paid time off, any policy regarding that, should be left up to the employer,” said Jessica Gingras, a lobbyist for the chamber. “We don’t think that a one-size-fits-all, 56-hour-a-year mandate, with accrued time mandated, with carry over time mandated, will fit for the average Vermont employer.”
Gingras is especially concerned that the legislation doesn’t carve out special provisions for small businesses, often defined as those with 25 or fewer employees. Existing maternity leave and family leave statutes in Vermont, said Gingras, do have those exceptions to protect small businesses.
Vermont employers do what they can, within what they can afford, to offer reasonable benefits and paid leave, said Gingras. Although she conceded there are a few “bad apples,” she said these were few.
“We know that employers bend over backwards for their employees,” said Gingras.
Not so, said many of those who spoke on Thursday evening, relating firsthand their personal work experiences.
“With already minimal benefits, we are not getting paid sick days,” said Desiree Roberts, a Monkton resident who’s worked in the service industry for much of her life. “We are forced to choose between going to work, and risk worsening our condition, or to go into debt, or possibly lose our jobs when we are ill.”
“It is not anyone’s fault when they get sick, or have a child that is ill, or have an elderly parent,” said Roberts. “These are all parts of being human. And we don’t seem to be making any allowances for being human.”
There’s both a human and economic dimension to this legislation, as the debate on Thursday evening evidenced.
George Malek, president of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce, warned that the legislation could result in 4,000 layoffs, as employers scramble to compensate for the hours that employees will inevitably miss given paid sick leave.
“I’m here to ask you to not further impose on Vermont employers, and not further restrict employment opportunities for Vermont’s residents,” Malek told House lawmakers. He said the sick leave measure translates to a 3.5 percent surcharge on payrolls, even as minimum wages, unemployment insurance, and workers compensation costs rise.
“Cash-strapped businesses are facing government-imposed increases in power costs, additional taxes on fuel and consumer spending, uncertain health care expenses, and hours of additional paperwork,” said Malek.
Still, not all business owners are against paid sick days. Wes Hamilton, who runs many Central Vermont restaurants, including Montpelier’s legendary Three Penny Taproom, said mandating sick leave both helps employees and levels the playing field for many businesses.
“Unfortunately, not all business owners are inclined to prioritize taking care of their employees,” said Hamilton. “When such benefits are voluntary, it puts those of us compelled to do the right thing at a disadvantage for doing so,” he continued, explaining that businesses are able to cut costs and prices by not offering reasonable benefits.
Hamilton said workers without sick leave who end up unemployed place greater strain on state welfare programs.
Heather Pipino, with the Vermont Workers Center, also argued that there are economic benefits to sick leave.
“You have less employee turnover, you have less costs associated with training,” said Pipino, who’s worked without sick leave in the nonprofit, restaurant, and retail sectors. She also pointed out that Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, a major business association, supports this bill.
“There are plenty of employers who can offer the counter-narrative to, that they’re going to have to lay people off if they give people paid sick leave,” she said.
Bill Driscoll, of the Associated Industries of Vermont, which represents manufacturers, isn’t convinced. He suspects there could be unforeseen consequences, including layoffs.
“You’re increasing the cost of employment,” he told VTDigger. “You’re going to have to have something to offset that.” Though one business owner testified that the state should fund this mandate by offering employers tax breaks or other subsidies, instead of leaving the costs to be borne by businesses, Driscoll isn’t a big fan of this state-based approach either.
This may all be moot. The rally to boost support of paid sick leave comes with less than a month left in the legislative session, and the bill hasn’t yet cleared a committee vote.
It’s unclear how much political traction the measure has, though former Gov. Madeline Kunin expressed her support of the bill earlier in March.
Similar legislation failed in 2010, said Gingras, after the Chamber of Commerce managed to rally 100 businesses to testify against paid sick days in 2010, in only 24 hours.