Equal pay legislation questioned by business community

The House Chamber. Photo by Roger Crowley

The House Chamber. Photo by Roger Crowley

The state’s business community is urging House lawmakers to delay, further study, or totally forget about a pending legislative requirement that businesses formally consider requests by employees for flexible work calendars.

A number of business trade groups, like the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, and the Vermont Retailers Association, told the House Judiciary committee that pending equal-pay legislation is in parts too “prescriptive and regulatory.”

Supporters countered Thursday that the bill would only affect a small number of businesses and opposed what they said were efforts to weaken the legislation.

The business groups said the equal pay legislation, which also protects a worker’s right to ask about flexible schedules and the wages of colleagues without fear of retaliation, writes into statute that employers must discuss flexible working hours “in good faith” with employees within a month of a request, and decide two weeks later.

Violations by businesses could lead to civil investigations and restraints from the attorney general, a state’s attorney, or the state’s Human Rights Commission, a threat that small businesses fear, according to business lobbyists.

Jessica Gingras of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and Catherine Davis of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, said that Vermont’s employers already allow flexible work plans, and that there are few, if any, Vermont employers who simply refuse to take such requests seriously.

“Vermont employers are largely already doing this, and it’s in their interests to listen to their employees,” said Davis, arguing that the mandate was unnecessary. “Vermont employers get that their employees are an incredible resource for them, and they want to treat them well.”

Gingras and Davis argued that if employees had a legally established right to inquire, and were protected against retaliation, the bill’s chief goal would be met. They shrugged off concerns about harsher or more inflexible employers as part of a very small minority in Vermont, though Gingras added that workplace flexibility varied between industries.

As a whole, the equal pay bill, H.99,  aims to lessen pay inequality between men and women by promoting flexible work situations, following the lead of some European countries. Proponents argue that a flexible work calendar could help women bridge an existing pay gap in Vermont, whereby women on average earn about 84 cents for each dollar earned by men.

Julio Thompson from the attorney general’s office refuted the concerns raised by some in the business community. Attorney General Bill Sorrell helped draft the original legislation.

“The business representatives we hear tell us that these conversations are occurring and they grant flex time, when it works for them. If that’s true, this wouldn’t affect their practices: it would only affect those employers who are not having those conversations, or have no business reasons not to consider the request,” Thompson told VTDigger.

Thompson argued that a worker’s right to request a special long-term working schedule is only meaningful if an employer has some obligation to listen. He added that employers were given a “safe harbor,” so they could reject requests which don’t meet reasonable concerns from a business perspective.

An employer can reasonably reject such a request, the legislation shows, if it would burden the business with additional costs, make it difficult to meet consumer demand, or otherwise badly impact the business in seven different ways.

House Judiciary chair Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, reminded business lobbyists during committee testimony that this provision provides considerable leeway for businesses to reject the requests, which must be formally considered at least twice a year.

Women’s rights advocate Cary Brown, who leads the Vermont Commission on Women, said that to eliminate an employer’s “duty to consider” removes much of the teeth of this legislation.

“Adding on a duty to consider and respond is what gives some real strength to employees’ being able to ask, and be taken seriously,” said Brown.

Although complaints about requests being ignored or unreasonably rejected were not alarmingly widespread in Vermont, she said, they do exist.

“As we keep hearing, employers are already doing this to a large degree [granting flexibility]. But there are some employers who aren’t, and there are some places where it’s just not okay to ask,” she said.

Thompson and Brown both said that much time had been spent on this bill already, and that the need for a further summer study, as urged by some business representatives, was unnecessary.

Thompson said that a working group convened last summer included some business representatives, with people from the Vermont Grocers Association and the Vermont Retailers Association, who argued against parts of the bill on Thursday, even though the original bill reflected the consensus of that group.

“The bill, at the urging of business groups, has spelled out in great detail how much discretion an employer has to decline a request if it doesn’t fit their business needs,” he said.

The Vermont Chamber of Commerce has also opposed a paid sick leave bill, according to a report by VPR’s Kirk Carapezza.

UPDATE: Not all representatives of business groups opposed parts of the legislation. Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility’s Andrea Cohen testified before House Judiciary, supporting the bill in its current form.

Nat Rudarakanchana

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