Session 2016 preview: Way paved for passage of paid sick leave

Paid sick leave
Lindsay DesLauriers, center, head of the Main Street Alliance, stands among supporters at a news conference at Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex in September 2013. File photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger
A bill that would mandate sick leave for workers is poised for passage this year in the Vermont Legislature.

The House last year passed legislation that would require employers to provide three days of paid sick time off beginning in 2017; the number of days increases to five in 2018.

Under the House proposal, H.187, paid sick leave would be available for full-time workers who have been on the job for at least nine months. Part-time workers would get paid time off after a year of employment. Businesses with equivalent or more generous time-off policies would be exempt.

Paid sick leave legislation was first proposed 10 years ago, and H.187 is the first bill providing for a statewide paid sick days policy to pass in either legislative chamber. With a 72-63 majority vote in the House in April, strong support from House Speaker Shap Smith and newly announced backing from Senate Pro Tem John Campbell, the workplace benefit is likely to be approved by both chambers this session.

Campbell, who has in the past been publicly opposed, told VPR recently that “prospects are good” for the bill’s passage.

Sen. Kevin Mullin, chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee, says he will take up the House bill at the end of January.

Supporters hope Mullin, who has not been a backer, will consider compromises made in the House bill and, after the hearings in his committee, be willing to support the benefit. His fellow Republican, Sen. Bill Doyle, is so far uncommitted. But the majority of committee members — all Democrats, Sens. Philip Baruth, the vice chair of the committee, Ann Cummings and Becca Balint — support the paid sick leave requirements.

The House bill language covers part-time and full-time employees in the Vermont workforce, but not seasonal or temporary workers.

The goal of the bill is to give access to the benefit to as many of the 60,000 Vermont workers currently without paid sick leave as possible. It sets a universal standard that applies equally to all employers regardless of size.

In real world terms, many more of the state’s small businesses would provide paid sick leave to permanent part-time and full-time staff if the bill passes. Some large businesses would provide paid sick leave for the first time to permanent part-time staff.

Lindsay DesLauriers, who heads the Main Street Alliance, a group of 200 Vermont businesses that are advocating for the bill, says the legislation requires a waiting period for new hires before they are eligible for the benefit. Though the time off accrues from the first day of employment, the hours cannot be used until the employee has been in the job for 1,400 hours or one year, whichever comes first.

Main Street Alliance supports an expansion of paid sick leave policies that larger employers have traditionally offered permanent part-time and full-time employees.

Benefits would be phased in. In the first two years the law is in effect, the maximum paid sick leave that can be accrued is three days per year (24 hours). The maximum increases to five days (40 hours) after that.

If the legislation passes, Vermont’s would be the strongest state bill in the country, according to Annie Accettella, campaign director at Voices for Vermont’s Children, which is part of the Vermont Paid Sick Days Coalition, a statewide group that is advocating for the bill.

Vermont would be the only state, out of five with paid sick days legislation, that has not carved out a major exemption for small businesses with 49 or fewer employees.

Vermont would be the only state, out of five with paid sick days legislation, that has not carved out a major exemption for small businesses with 49 or fewer employees. Connecticut, in contrast, exempts businesses in that category.

DesLauriers says the House “went to great lengths to ensure that there is parity in the bill between all employers, public and private and by size.”

The latest Vermont Department of Labor Fringe Benefits Study estimates that slightly more than 50 percent of private sector workers employed by companies with fewer than 20 workers have access to paid leave, compared with approximately 78 percent of workers employed by larger companies.

But the picture is more complicated than that. There are wildly different benefits offered now even among “small” private employers.

For example, the Alchemist beer brewery that makes Heady Topper, with just 24 employees, offers sick days that can be used by an employee or to care for family members. The Vermont Land Trust with 47, lets workers accrue one paid sick day a month up to a total of 25 days over two years.

There are many small businesses in the Main Street Alliance that offer paid leave of some kind. Caleb Magoon, who owns Power Play Sports in Morrisville and the recently opened Waterbury Sports, articulates the view of someone “who lives and functions in a small community,” where, as he puts it, there are “social pressures” to do right by your employees.

He has 10 employees, evenly split between part-time and full-time and they receive three days of sick time per year.

“Normally it’s not based on the number of hours the employee works; it’s based purely on an eight-week probationary period and we do that regardless of how many hours per week you work,” Magoon said.

“The cost is really not a lot,” Magoon said. “I support this bill specifically because in many ways it’s a ‘big bang for your buck’ benefit. It’s one of the best benefits you could possibly give in terms of the meaning to the employee. I grew up with a single mother and it makes a difference to be able to take your kid to the doctor. Administrative headache, sure, but minuscule.”

Opponents say the new state requirements will be onerous. Associated Industries of Vermont and the Vermont Retail and Grocers’ Association both say paid sick leave will hurt companies.

Pushback on the House bill comes from employers like Dawn Terrill, who, with her husband, owns Janitech commercial cleaning services in Colchester, which has 100 employees, about half full-time and half part-time. They are members of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce.

Terrill said in House hearings that “now if an employee calls in sick, they work out a trade, with someone else covering for them, but if the law goes into effect they will lose that incentive.”

The legislation now under consideration is a compromise between opponents and supporters.

Her company has a paid holidays policy and “we added bereavement pay, because you know how important that time off is and we didn’t want people to go without pay in that situation.”

Terrill says the bill “is forcing us to provide a benefit that is not what we know fits what we can offer.”

She is worried about the cost. Commercial cleaning is done after the office workday, and when an employee calls in sick “we have to find someone else to take their shift.”

“Our work can’t wait,” Terrill said. “So we have to pay both the person who is sick and the person who takes their shift.”

‘Mom-and-pop’ operations included

The legislation now under consideration is a compromise between opponents and supporters.

Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, helped Main Street Alliance bring together employers to discuss the impact of a paid sick leave bill. The legislation was not initially embraced by chamber members. A recent Lake Champlain Chamber survey shows the membership is split 50-50 on paid time off, and well over 50 percent do not offer the benefit. (The survey did not cross-tabulate results, so it was not possible to see which respondents were in favor of the policy but don’t have it.)

The chamber convened a two-day business task force on paid leave in October 2014. The wide-ranging discussion led to changes in the bill, including a phase-in of the benefit, the reduction from seven to a maximum of three days in the first two years and five days after that. In addition, seasonal and temporary workers were exempted.

To accommodate the wide range in size of businesses in Vermont, employers may also calculate accrual on a rolling basis, quarterly, or at the start of an annual period rather than being held to one standard.

A major point of contention is whether to exempt “mom-and-pop” operations, companies that have five to 10 employees, among them the owners.

The negotiations led to a bill that covers every size business but provides coverage only for regular part-time and full-time employees. (A few specific types of employee, such as health care or school employees not obligated to work a regular schedule, are exempt.)

If mom-and-pop companies are exempted, about 40,000 employees would not receive the paid sick leave benefit.

In the House bill, mom-and-pop enterprises must provide paid sick leave. Baruth says it is imperative to keep very small companies in the Senate version of the legislation. If mom-and-pop companies are exempted, about 40,000 employees would not receive the paid sick leave benefit.

The AARP, which has not actively supported a paid sick leave bill before, will also be weighing in, according to Greg Marchildon, Vermont state director.

Marchildon is focused on the issue of family caregiving both for and by the elderly, which, he says, “is huge and growing.” And he adds, “unlike some AARP issues it is important to every one of our members. While sometimes there are different concerns from an 83-year-old member vs. a 53-year-old, on this issue there is a united concern because they have a lot in common — the need for time to care for other family members. Remember there are more and more grandparents caring for grandchildren.”

The range of stakeholders planning to testify highlights the challenges for the bill.

Proponents say any substantial changes to the House version in the Senate will weaken the bill, making it vulnerable when it goes to conference committee. Conference committees are appointed by the lieutenant governor, and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who is running for governor, is not in favor of a paid sick leave law.

How does one leader with a constituency still somewhat critical of the bill look at it? With the goal of “getting the best bill in the end,” Torti said he is is reminded of the first bill with which he wrestled.

“It was an early 1990s DWI bill—I was representing the state’s attorneys and sheriffs — and at the end of the session when the bill passed neither side, defenders general or state’s attorneys, were totally pleased but Ruth Stokes — or maybe Sally Fox — who was chair of House Judiciary, pointed out that if both sides were a little happy and a little disappointed then it was probably a good bill,” Torti said. “It’s the epitome of making sausage.”

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Kate Robinson

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  • Dave Bellini

    The state of Vermont is not a Mom and Pop store. The abuse of full time, non-seasonal, correctional officers continues. The state was sure to exclude this unique population of employees. They are Vermont Corrections Academy trained and no “temp” correctional officer has ever been layed off due to lack of work EVER. It’s probably the most idiotic scheme ever devised. The state is forced to hire approximately 150 “temps” per year to keep up with all the turnover. This creates massive overtime that costs taxpayers millions. The cost of training, turnover and overtime is ignored. Vermont is the only state that staffs its state prisons this way. Southern states aren’t this stupid. All this disingenuous talk from Democrats about wanting to do what’s right….. If legislators won’t give benefits to full time correctional officers and say they support paid sick time, vote them out FIRST.

  • James Mason

    It amazes me that John Campbell can be more powerful in deciding our laws than even our popularly elected governor.

    I do not reside in the district of Mr. Campbell or Mr. Smith so cannot have a say in their election, yet my duly elected legislators will never even get the change to vote on bills that don’t pass their highly subjective tests..

  • Walter Carpenter

    I cannot wait for this bill to pass. I’ve been sick with a stomach virus or something like it all week long, and have had to go in to work all week long, despite it, or I would have lost a week’s pay. We are the only democratic nation in the world which does not provide sick time for employees, compelling people with the flu or viruses or whatever to keep going into work.

  • Peter Everett

    My wife’s niece is a teacher in another state. Her comment was “they wouldn’t give me 20 days sick/personal leave if they didn’t expect me to take them. So I do” No abuse, correct?
    She extended her April vacation to two weeks in Florida, using her “sick leave”.
    It only costs the taxpayer, so I guess its OK because the Legislature doesn’t care about wasting taxpayer’s money, either.

    • Paul Richards

      Give them the “sick leave” but take it out of their discriminatory tax payer funded early retirement and pension plans. Why am I being discriminated against by being forced to settle for social security (whatever that really is when they get done raiding it and raising the retirement age to 100)? I need some sick leave; I’m sick of funding their elite discriminatory plans.

  • Peter Chick

    What will stop employers from cutting vacation? Have any VT legislators ever held a job?