The so-called paid sick leave bill, which would require companies to give employees time off, has re-emerged in the House.
Advocates testified this week that passing H.187 is an issue of gender equity, family values, worker retention and public health. Opponents say it’s a state mandate that could hurt small businesses with thin profit margins.
In the latest version of the bill, workers would accrue one hour of “paid sick time” for every 40 hours worked, maxing out at three full days. The law would go into effect July 1, and the number of days would increase to five full days in July 2017.
Workers could use the paid leave for personal illness, preventive medical appointments, to care for a close family member who is sick or to address life events surrounding sexual assault, domestic violence, or stalking.
Employers could make workers wait up to 90 days or 500 work hours to begin accruing the leave, and employers would have the discretion not to include part-time, seasonal or temporary hours in that total. Employers who already give workers time off exceeding the three day minimum would not need to offer additional time under the law.
H.187 is a weaker iteration of paid sick leave bills that have been introduced in past legislative sessions. The bill also has more compromise language than the Senate version, S.15, and has significantly more support from Vermont businesses than previous bills.
Stephanie Seguino, a labor economist at UVM, made a pro-business argument on Thursday before the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs. Seguino said paid time off makes workers more productive and loyal to businesses. Women and children would benefit most from the law, she said.
“More than a third of mothers do not have paid sick leave, but among single mothers, two-thirds do not have paid sick leave,” Seguino said. “In my view, it is primarily these workers we should be thinking about and then try to assess what the business cost will be.”
Seguino said 86 percent of employees with paid leave do not abuse it. She said the state is in a good place to pass the bill because the recent plunge in oil prices dropped inflation to 1.3 percent.
“Firms will have this cushion to adapt because they have decreased pressures because of oil costs,” Seguino said.
Dan Barlow, public policy manager for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, said in an interview that more businesses “than ever before” are supporting H.187.
“What we often find talking to employers is the cost of replacing someone is much higher than the minimal cost of giving someone three or five days off per year,” Barlow said.
Michele Kropp, owner of Gringo Jack’s Bar and Grill in Manchester, testified Wednesday that her company spends $3,700 per year giving employees paid leave, and some workers stay 10 years.
“We think it’s the responsible thing to do, to pay these people when they are sick,” Kropp said. “When you go out to dinner, the job creators go out to dinner, I don’t think they want to go out to dinner when somebody is coughing in their food and handling their food.”
Other business groups and legislators are opposed to the bill.
“I’m opposed to the bill,” Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, who sits on House General Affairs, said. “I don’t think businesses can take another mandate. I know in Rutland we’ve already lost more than 900 jobs this year.”
Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, said his organization encourages businesses to provide paid leave but does not support the bill. He said small retailers would have to cut wages in order to comply with the new law.
“This is one of those issues where we can all agree it’s a good benefit, but employers are very sensitive to any cost that they’re mandated to, and they’re also very sensitive to being micromanaged by the state,” Harrison said.
Kendal Melvin, a lobbyist for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said the bill would have added to the “cumulative impact” of other laws passed in the Legislature, including the minimum wage increase scheduled through 2018.
William Driscoll, vice president of the Associated Industries of Vermont, said the Legislature should dissolve the bill and instead give businesses information on how to improve their existing paid leave policies and how to comply with the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which offers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
“There actually is quite a bit of availability of paid leave and leave options, both formal and informal,” Driscoll said. He said most of his members already provide some sort of paid leave to their workers.
Michelle Fay, spokesperson for the Vermont Paid Sick Days campaign, said manufacturing workers are usually men, so passing a bill is necessary to extend paid leave to more women.
“What they’re calling a one-size-fits-all solution, we’re calling a minimum standard,” Fay said. “The industries that are already providing this are already predominantly providing this to men.”
Auburn Watersong of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, testified in favor of the provision of H.187 that would allow Vermonters to use the paid leave to address sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking.
“Sometimes the safest time to seek counseling, health care, or legal protection is during work hours,” Watersong said. “Court hearings only happen during business hours, which requires many survivors to take time off from work. Batterers who also economically abuse their partners may monitor their partner’s paychecks and work schedules.”
Watersong called domestic violence a “gendered phenomenon” that doesn’t stay home from work.
The Vermont Paid Sick Days campaign announced Thursday afternoon it would deliver 2,400 postcards to House members this week and buy new radio advertisements to amp up pressure to pass the bill.
The House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs is expected to vote on the bill as soon as next week.