Story + Video: Paid sick leave proposal stands a healthy chance

Video: Vermont Earned Sick Days Coalition news conference

Lawmakers are finalizing exceptions and clarifications to a proposed mandatory sick leave law.

Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, said her House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs hopes to move an amended H.208 to the House Appropriations Committee on Friday or Tuesday.

The changes likely will carve out exceptions for some medical professions, substitute teachers and potentially agricultural workers. The new version also would assure employers that, if they already provide at least 56 hours per year of sick leave to full-time workers, they would not have any additional requirements.

H.208 would provide one hour of paid sick leave for each 30-hour work week at businesses of all sizes in Vermont. The time off would begin accruing on the first day of full-time employment. It could be used for employees’ own health and safety needs, as well as those of their families.

Sponsored by more than 30 lawmakers, the proposal enjoys strong support even though it faces fierce opposition. Eighty-three witnesses in the past two weeks argued for and against the legislation.

Supporters, many of them organized by the Vermont Earned Sick Days Coalition with assistance from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, delivered practical and sometimes emotional messages about the social and business benefits of offering earned sick time.

Their stories were studded with frank opposition to the bill from business owners and trade groups such as the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Vermont. These organizations say the regulation is unnecessary, inappropriate and poorly timed.

They also worry that, as written, the benefit will be redundant with existing provisions in the state and federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which offers unpaid leave to workers for similar reasons.

The primary aim of H.208 is to foster better conditions for public health and personal safety. When people don’t have to choose between staying home with the flu or earning enough money to pay the rent, the rationale goes, they are more likely to take care of themselves and thereby limit the spread of illness.

Similarly, victims of domestic violence might be more inclined to seek support and protection if they aren’t faced with a cut in pay. Employment protections in domestic violence cases can help victims maintain the financial stability critical to their independence.

Very little argument, if any, has surfaced in the course of public testimony against these broad goals of health and safety.

“The issues you’ve defined in (H.208) are real-life social problems,” said Ed Larson, executive director of the Barre Granite Association.

But Larson said that mandatory sick leave is not the solution. He said the regulation would cost companies dearly, whether through additional payroll costs or from the complexity of administering the benefits program.

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, questions Ed Larson (foreground) of the Barre Granite Association about his testimony opposing mandatory paid sick leave. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, questions Ed Larson (foreground) of the Barre Granite Association about his testimony opposing mandatory paid sick leave. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

William Driscoll, vice-president of the manufacturing trade group Associated Industries of Vermont, echoed many of Larson’s concerns Thursday afternoon.

Driscoll said if a blanket provision is required, it would hamper employers’ flexibility. Mandatory sick leave would also undermine contract negotiations, in his view. Now unions may choose to give in on benefits in exchange for higher pay, for example.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon by the Vermont Earned Sick Leave Coalition, several business expressed their support for H.208.

Wes Hamilton of the Three Penny Taproom and the Mad Taco, two Montpelier restaurants, said that requiring universal paid sick leave would level the playing field among businesses.

Hamilton said he does not offer paid sick leave because he doesn’t think he can afford to offer a benefit his competitors don’t provide. The restaurant industry’s profit margin is too slim to absorb any added cost, Hamilton said. But he would like to extend it if all restaurants have to do the same.

Randy George and Liza Cain, co-owners of the Red Hen Bakery, also urged passage of H.208.

They used to believe they couldn’t afford to offer benefits, George said. Now that they do, they credit their benefits package — including paid sick time — with boosting productivity at the bakery. They also receive fewer last-minute call-outs from work due to illness, because people don’t push themselves as far before deciding to stay home, George said.

Jim Lazarus, senior vice-president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, spoke with the committee by Skype on Wednesday. His city enacted a paid sick leave bill in 2007.

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, found his testimony reassuring. “He expressed some general assurance that it’s not as hard as people are making it out to be,” Stevens said during a committee discussion Thursday morning.

Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, D-Burlington, said in an interview Thursday there are no filing requirements attached to the policy. She thinks tracking could be easily added to systems for quarterly wage reports that businesses already must file for employees. Any records related to sick time would only be scrutinized in the event of a complaint and investigation, O’Sullivan said.

It’s not just paperwork that’s got some employers worried, though. Many business owners also expressed concern that sick leave could be abused. This was a particular concern for companies that employee a more “at-risk” workforce.

Dawn Terrill of the cleaning service Janitech said she knows her workers and their habits. While many are conscientious, most sick days tend to fall on Mondays and Fridays, she said.

“I know that’s not how sickness works. But I do know that’s how life works,” Terrill said. As a “bridge” employer willing to give work to convicted felons, for example, Terrill said she may feel disinclined to continue taking on employees with checkered pasts if she has to offer them paid benefits.

Currently the system of switching shifts for time off works fine, Terrill said. But she’s concerned that guaranteed paid sick leave would discourage those shifts and encourage people to just take the day off, instead. That would drive up her payroll, she said.

Lazarus testified, however, that on the whole, San Francisco businesses experienced “no significant increase in the use of sick leave” after adopting the regulation.

O’Sullivan said employers can adopt any regulation they like as conditions to providing the sick leave: Requiring doctor’s notes, for example, may cut down on incidences of sick days following the pay-day benders some witnesses talked about.

CHANCES OF PASSAGE

Should it pass the House, the bill would go to the Senate Committee on Economic Development, where Chair Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, has promised to take it up.

Gov. Peter Shumlin kept mum about the bill at a legislative luncheon hosted by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce in Montpelier on Wednesday. Shumlin said he would wait for the bill to be fully vetted by the Legislature before making up his mind about it.

Other top politicians at the event also tread carefully on the topic, saying they would not want it to disrupt business operations or competitiveness.

But House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, sounded a slightly different note.

“Even if we do not pass a bill this year, this is probably not an issue that’s going away,” Smith said Wednesday. “I would like to see us … move the issue forward.”

If Vermont passes the law, it would follow Connecticut as the only other state to mandate paid sick leave. Connecticut’s law only applies to businesses with 50 or more employees, and it only accrues one hour of earned time off for each 40 hours worked.

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Comments

  1. Dawn Terrill :

    My comments are out of context here. JaniTech does offer paid benefits for all employees, part-time and full-time; more benefits than most janitorial service providers and we never higher people at minimum wage. However, the benefits we offer are not an abundance of paid sick days as lawmakers want to mandate. Our benefit structure is what best fits our business dynamics, our workforce and our budgets. I described it as “local control” when I testified. While paid sick leave is a laudable goal in and of itself, the layering of these mandates is hurting the very people and businesses we want to help in VT. Wages are held down for those productively at work while we allocate money to mandates for workers comp, unemployment, retiree pay, retiree healthcare, and the list goes on. The ideal of a livable wage is at cross-purposes with blanket initiatives such as this. JaniTech will meet the mandate but it will likely reduce other benefits and potentially negate pay increases that our employees would rather have.

  2. sandra bettis :

    it’s interesting that the people arguing against paid sick leave are also the people who are enjoying paid sick leave….just a little hypocritical, wouldn’t you say?

    • Peter Washburn :

      And just how do you figure that Ms Bettis? Because these business owners are there testifying? That might very well be the case but at the same time their employees – who have employment because of them – are at work generating a paycheck .
      Your comments just amaze me. Have you ever seen a VT anti-business bill that you didn’t like? I think some employer burned you good once and you figure this is your payback time.

      • Jessica Bright :

        >Have you ever seen a VT anti-business bill that you didn’t like?

        No but I see people trying to reduce the cost of labor in a country that once had slavery written into it’s constitution. Underpaying labor in the system we are forced to play this game in is unacceptable.

    • Jim Barrett :

      Let me offer you something totally out of the norm: how about a fund that is paid for by employees 100% that pays for their sick time. Why a company would pay sick time when it is abused by so many is beyopnd me. The legislature is sticking its nose into something that it doesn’t need to…not unusual!

  3. Paul Millman :

    So call it vacation time Dawn. I assume you provide vacation time.

  4. Teddy Hopkins :

    As a Selectboard member in the small town of Readsboro for over a decade I echo Dawn Terrill’s comments above.
    Although we do have sick days for our full time employees in our policy our employees have many other benefits ranging from healthcare, dental, short-long term disability as well as life insurance.
    If these new bills keep mandating what an employer has to offer employees then somewhere else in the hiring policies something is going to change to reflect the increased costs.
    Without being totally informed as to the current bill status I wonder whether or not the bill states the sick time shall be paid out as straight time and at what point is a doctor’s note needed for those with large amounts of rolled over sick time? Can the sick time be used in partial days, say, 2 hours at a time instead of the whole day?
    My last statement speaks to the fact that the Town over the years has increased certain classes of employees pay/salary in lieu of benefits and now this law is going to ‘back door” sick time benefits much in the same way Obamacare has done with health care.
    Although there is much merit in staying home while sick as not to spread a worst situation around I caution the financial impacts on Vermont employers.

  5. Doug Spaulding :

    Why VT legislatures would ever weigh what someone from the whacked out city of San Francisco would have to say over what Vermont’s own business people like Dawn Terrill, and Ed Larson and William Driscoll have to say regarding passage of this bill should surprise me but it doesn’t. How far did someone have to scratch to scrounge up that all convincing phone call?
    Passage of this bill would be just another stake in the heart of Vermont businesses already legislated and pick pocketed to death. I sure hope our Northeast Kingdom Senators and Representatives know which way to vote on this.

  6. Patrick Cashman :

    “Hamilton said he does not offer paid sick leave because he doesn’t think he can afford to offer a benefit his competitors don’t provide. The restaurant industry’s profit margin is too slim to absorb any added cost, Hamilton said. But he would like to extend it if all restaurants have to do the same.”
    It would be interesting if those doing the questioning had asked what effect on his prices Mr. Hamilton felt such a policy would have.
    Frankly, it would be better if this paid leave were state funded so we could all see how much is being paid for work not performed. Instead the cost will be transferred to us all through higher prices yet we will never know how much is the new mandate, and how much is business owner opportunism.

    • Doug Spaulding :

      Do you not realize, Mr Cashman, that it matters not whether a pizza cost more downtown or having sick leave funded through the state…. either way you, personally, are paying for it? But then you are probably the one that always has his hand up when a grant comes along that looks good for work that needs being performed in your city or town….figuring it is a federal or state government “freebie” so why not?

      • Patrick Cashman :

        Doug,
        Paying for this state mandate directly from state funds gives visibility of the actual aggregate cost instead of hiding it away in tiny increments in the cost of everyday purchases. Once the actual cost of everyone’s particular societal whims becomes clear, we can all have a rationale conversation about what we are willing to pay for and what is not worth the cost.

        • Doug Spaulding :

          And what then Patrick….repeal the law if we do not like the way the figures look or how they all add up? Never happen. There is a reason why CT is the only state that mandates paid sick leave and the reason is because it doesn’t need to be mandated to begin with.

          • Patrick Cashman :

            Ahhh….yes?
            The problem with the current discussion is it is framed in context of those evil business owners, not paying their employees for work not performed. Capturing the cost at the front end, instead of hiding it in the cost we all pay for everyday items, would quantify how much we are willing to perform for work not done.

          • Doug Spaulding :

            You know that would just never happen. Personally, I do not trust the state to do anything right and I can only imagine how well they would screw up something like you are suggesting here and how many new employees it would take to do that. You are only being argumentative for arguments sake or maybe you just can not stand to admit that what you are suggesting is a fantasy illusion or maybe you just can not stand someone else having the last word….

        • Michael Smith :

          The calculation is quite simple from a business perspective. In most industries, revenues must exceed 3 times the laborers’ wages (including payroll taxes and workers compensation). If businesses are forced to incur a 3.33% percent entitlement tax (1:30), revenues will have to increase accordingly, or expenses will need to be trimmed. Either fees and rates are increases or wages are cut. Don’t forget, entitlement programs like this require businesses to incur additional costs. In some cases, these costs can be quite substantial. Add in lost business due to staff shortage (or for the liberals, the cost of an additional on-call employee), administrative costs, etc. and the public should prepare for a 4% increase in products and services or a 3-4% cut in wages.

          BTW, what type of additional tax will the State be levying to provide oversight and enforce compliance.

          • Fred Woogmaster :

            Thank you Mr. Smith; a useful perspective.

            “…revenues must exceed 3 times the laborer’s wages…”
            To yield what level of profit, Mr. Smith?
            What is the correlation?

  7. Walter Carpenter :

    “Passage of this bill would be just another stake in the heart of Vermont businesses already legislated and pick pocketed to death. ”

    I suppose employees do not matter.

    • Doug Spaulding :

      Certainly they matter Walter but with all the mandates this state shoulders on it’s business community it won’t be too long before there won’t be any employees to matter. What part of that do you not understand? Do you favor the $10 an hour minimum wage too?

  8. Walter Carpenter :

    It is unbelieveable that our reps continue to feel they know how to run a business they do not own.

    My rep ran a business for many years and supports this bill. And why isn’t this a role for government? If we did not have a legal minimum wage, for example, can you imagine what wages would be?

  9. Dan Luneau :

    We have provided 40 hours of paid sick leave per year for full time hourly employees for over thirty years. It can be taken in any time increment that our associate requires. We do not require anything but a notice that they will be absent. Any unused sick time is paid out at the employees rate of pay on the last pay period of the calender year it was not taken. It cannot be rolled over / accumulated.
    That said, the current discussion would include 56 hours. Based on our long running program I feel that 40 hours accomplishes what the advocates feel is needed, 56 is overkill.
    As far as meeting our associates needs, most of our associates use the program appropriately and some do not. For the most part we feel that it does help.
    Dan Luneau
    Handy Toyota
    St Albans

  10. Jim Barrett :

    It is common knowledge that anyone who works in Vermont should stiff their employer as hard as possible until they leave the state. Anyone wanting sick days has an option and it doesn’t include any phony law out of Montpelier, just put a few dollars away each week and you have your paid sick time all paid for. Just more anti business coming out of Montpelier and we wonder why companies leave this state with . Cost of doing business happens to matter to a private company unlike government!

  11. sandra bettis :

    we need this bill because, as usual, employers will not do the right thing on their own. if we didn’t have a minimum wage, i imagine the workers at walmart etc would be getting even less than they are. do you really want a sick person serving food to you??

  12. sandra bettis :

    and, mr washburn, for your info, when i retired from the state, i had over (and lost) a yr’s sick leave. i was very lucky that neither i nor my kids were sick for those 30 yrs but it was always nice to know that it was there – just in case – and i also know that not every one is that lucky. have you ever heard of empathy, mr washburn?

    • Peter Washburn :

      My empathy extends only so far Ms Bettis but I do not dwell on that character trait as my time is all spent on just trying to keep my company afloat and the more the legislatures stick their nose in my checkbook the closer I, and my employees, are to drowning. And my employees are well compensated and already have a very liberal leave policy but to be told (legislated) that I need it and exactly how it must be implemented is what galls me. And I am very happy that you went 30 years without a sick day because had you of taken one it to would have come out of my wallet.

  13. Dave Bellini :

    The State of Vermont is not a small business. Approximately 20% of state correctional officers are employed as temporary workers without any sick days. These officers work full time and the work is NOT temporary. They work 40++ hours per week every week and are exposed to the same risks as permanent workers. The Shumlin Administration has fought hard AGAINST giving these full time correctional officers any benefits. Only overwhelming political pressure will get the Governor to sign the bill. He’s against paid sick time for all state employees, maybe he will cave to pressure from advocacy groups.

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