Broad coalition presses for universal sick leave legislation

Broad coalition presses for universal sick leave legislation

Madeleine Kunin

Madeleine Kunin. Photo courtesy of UVM

H.208, “An act relating to absence from work for health care and safety,” is the latest attempt to make “paid sick leave,” interpreted as leave for personal as well as family health reasons, available to all Vermont workers.

The most recent Vermont Department of Labor survey showed that 62 percent of employees now have some form of paid sick leave, either a strict sick leave policy or what are called variously Combined Time Off (sometimes called “consolidated leave”) or Paid Time Off, which allow for time off for the range of reasons mirrored in the legislation. Supporters of the bill say it is time for equity in employment by having the balance of Vermont’s workers covered.

They see a shift in perception around paid sick leave and the group calling themselves the Vermont Paid Sick Days Coalition held a press conference at the Statehouse on Tuesday as crossover week opened. Gov. Madeleine Kunin, whose most recent book, The New Feminist Agenda, underlines the need to support working families, whether single-parent or couples, spoke first, noting the growing popularity of “earned paid sick leave” policies around the country.

San Francisco has had a similar policy since 2007 and Washington, D.C. since 2008. Seattle adopted a version of paid sick leave in 2011 and, in the same year, Connecticut became the first state to adopt it. Now Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington State are considering bills. To support their position that times are changing, backers cite polls in San Francisco after paid sick leave became standard that found two-thirds of businesses, many of whom had objected before the legislation passed, had come to approve it.

Kunin argues that while businesses used to think of it as an “infringement on their prerogatives, it isn’t a polarizing debate when it’s seen as a family friendly policy.”

Indeed, the broad coalition of organizations that now support the bill includes Vermont Business for Social Responsibility, which in past years had reservations about required leave under a state policy. Dan Barlow, public policy manager of VBSR, who spoke for the bill at the press conference, says his members came on board this year because the legislation takes into account existing employer programs, by leaving a business’s own policy in place if it exists so long as they meet the minimum standards in the bill.

Lindsay DesLauriers, of Voices for Vermont Children, worked on the compromise wording that “gave freedom back to businesses to structure their own plans, so long as they meet minimum standards that allow not just absences because of illnesses, but for preventive care and care of children but also other family members.”

Supporters say the bill has a public health value as well, since it would mean sick people could stay home without forfeiting wages — a problem particularly for hourly workers — and sick children would not be sent to school because there is no one to care for them at home. Mari Cordes, a nurse and president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, said health workers “see people who put off coming in for care every day, so earned sick time is a public health priority.”

Earlier bills date back a decade or more, with the most recent version, H. 382, introduced in the 2009-10 session. The recast legislation was introduced by Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, and 34 other legislators. The new coalition of supporting organizations ranges from Voices for Vermont’s Children to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, the Vermont Public Health Association, AARP-Vermont, the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association and several other unions.

As recast, the bill directs that employees earn paid sick leave at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of seven days (56 hours) each year. Unused sick leave, which could be used to care for a family member who is ill, to go for routine but also preventive care or for diagnostic tests or therapy or to “take necessary steps for their safety as a result of sexual abuse, domestic violence or stalking,” could be carried over to the following year, but the seven-day maximum would be retained.

Where Vermont would break new ground compared to policies in other parts of the country is in including guaranteed sick leave for other family members such as a parent or grandparent.

The fate of H. 208 now rests with Rep. Helen Head, chair of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs. In the parlance of Vermont’s legislature, the bill must come off the wall in her committee, which must hold hearings and vote the measure out by Friday in order to meet the crossover deadline.

Kate Robinson

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  • Dave Bellini

    When Madeleine was Governor the VT Department of Corrections was flooded with temporary employees, none of whom had sick days or health insurance. She was in a position that could have actually changed this and led by example. We were unable to make any progress under her administration. We were told giving all correctional officers benefits like sick days was too expensive. Now she’s writing a book? Gimmie a break………

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