Shumlin, Smith call for paid sick leave on Women’s Equality Day

Cary Brown (left), the executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, and House Speaker Shap Smith rally in support of paid sick leave Wednesday in Burlington. Photo by Sarah Olsen/VTDigger

Cary Brown (left), executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, and House Speaker Shap Smith rally in support of paid sick leave Wednesday in Burlington. Photo by Sarah Olsen/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — On the 95th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, officials gathered to call for passage of a paid sick days bill in the next legislative session. Boosters say the legislation would bring Vermont a step closer to women’s equality.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, state lawmakers and local activists held a news conference at Hen of the Wood restaurant in Burlington, which is owned by Eric Warnstedt, who gives his employees 10 paid sick days a year.

Warnstedt, who is also a member of the Vermont state board of Main Street Alliance, said his restaurant’s paid sick leave policy has only affected his business costs by 1 percent to 2 percent. Warnstedt has been a longtime supporter of establishing a minimum standard for paid sick days and creating an environment in Vermont that supports equal opportunities for women in the workplace, he said.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women are less likely than men to have paid sick days, because female-driven industries are less likely to offer paid sick leave.

In the U.S., 54 percent of working mothers do not have any time off to care for themselves or their sick children, according to an April 2013 report released by The National Partnership for Women and Families.

The House version of a sick leave bill, H. 187, passed on a 72-63 vote. A different measure in the Senate, known as the Sodexo bill,S.15, failed to pass March 31.

The Senate is expected to take up the House version in January.

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, was the lead sponsor of the senate bill. Baruth said the Senate bill was different from the one that passed the House in that it was not as “business-friendly.” The House bill starts with three paid sick days a year and gradually goes up to five, and the right to those paid sick days doesn’t kick in until an employee has accumulated at least 1,400 hours at their place of employment, he said. The failed Sodexo bill called for seven paid sick days from the start, he said, and carried a provision prohibiting businesses from penalizing employees who used their sick time.

Now that the Senate is considering the version of the bill that the House passed, Baruth said he believes it will have a better chance of success.

“Hopefully, with some of those provisions, it will erase some of the anxiety from the business community,” Baruth said.

In a Wednesday news release, Baruth said that paid sick leave should be a right for all Vermont workers and those without this basic protection have waited long enough.

“The ability to take a paid day off work, if you or your child gets sick, is not a perk,” Baruth said. “It’s not some unnecessary frill that will drive Vermont businesses to close their doors.”

Stephanie Hainley, chief operating officer of White and Burke Real Estate Advisors and chair of the Main Street Alliance, said that establishing a minimum standard of paid sick days is part of making Vermont a competitive state for young professionals.

“Being able to manage your health is a basic human right, an issue of dignity and shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘benefit’ or ‘privilege,’” Hainley said. “Vermont needs to walk the talk.”

Shumlin called the legislation “common sense” and said he looks forward to working with the Legislature to get it enacted this session.

“As the father of daughters, it astonishes me that we don’t have these equal rights in the workplace,” he said.

Conor Casey, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, and Dottie Deans, chair of the party, did not attend the news conference due to business they had in Minneapolis, but Deans issued a statement supporting the bill.

“When children go to school sick because their parents cannot afford to miss work, this puts other students and staff at risk,” Deans said in the statement. “Failing to get timely medical attention only exacerbates illnesses, resulting in increased costs for those who can least afford it.”

Deans said in the statement that it is estimated that Vermont would save about $5 million in emergency room costs each year if paid sick days were provided.

“We’re hoping that this is an issue that gets traction, because paid sick days play into some of the core values of the Democratic Party,” Casey said.

This is an issue for workers’ rights, public health and also for businesses, he said. Casey said he has spoken to a lot of small business owners in the state who provide paid sick days and say they have a better retention rate.

“So we could actually see this as bringing employees to Vermont and hopefully some young employees,” Casey said.

House Speaker Shap Smith, who is seeking the Democratic nod for governor in 2016, also spoke at the event. He said he fully supports this bill so that his daughter can know that she has the same rights as her brother. Smith said his support for the bill has nothing to do with his campaign.

Correction: The effect of paid sick leave on Hen of the Wood and differences between the House and Senate versions of a sick leave bill were incorrect in an earlier version of this story. Also, Stephanie Hainley’s name was misspelled.

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