Politics

Obama official encourages Vermont to adopt paid sick leave bill

Chris Lu

Chris Lu, deputy secretary of the Department of Labor.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu stopped in Montpelier Monday as part of a national tour to support cities and states that are considering paid sick leave legislation.

The Obama administration would like to establish a national policy that would guarantee workers time off when they are sick, but that’s not in the cards, Lu said.

Instead, the White House is encouraging states and cities to pass sick leave benefit rules. As part of that PR campaign, Lu met with Vermont advocates and supporters of a paid sick leave bill at an afternoon roundtable event over lunch held at Three Penny Taproom.

Lu said he had found support even in some red states he’s visited recently. “Groupthink in the business community is changing,” he said, as more and more see such benefits as “important to a creative economy that works for everybody.”

If paid sick leave rules are adopted by states, he said, eventually they will become as accepted as the 40-hour work week, a ban on child labor and other fair work laws.

Lu’s visit comes just after the passage of H.187, the Vermont paid sick leave bill, in the Senate. That victory was upended last Friday when Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington, asked for a revote on an amendment to exempt businesses with five or fewer employees, which was narrowly defeated in a 15-14 vote Wednesday. Should a revote lead to passage of the amendment, which came from Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, opponents say an estimated 13,000 of the 60,000 workers the bill was intended to cover would be left out.

Supporters of the so-called Campion amendment say that if Vermont requires all businesses to offer the sick leave benefit, the state will be an outlier. Most states that mandate paid sick leave exempt small businesses, according to Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland.

If the exemption for small businesses passes, the Senate version of H.187 would be very different from the bill that came from the House because the Senate has already added exemptions for certain part-time employees and workers under the age of 18.

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After last Wednesday’s vote, in which the amendment was defeated, and the bill passed 21-8, some in the Senate leadership who support the paid sick leave were cautiously optimistic that the House would concur and the bill go forward as revised by the Senate.

But on Monday, House Speaker Shap Smith said the amendment would be a “deal breaker” as it leaves out the 10 percent of workers whom, he says, already have not seen real wages rise even as the economy has grown.

The House, he said, will stand firm in conference committee on excising the five-and-under carve out should it be approved by the Senate.

At the roundtable discussion, Lu heard from supportive businesses allied with the Main Street Alliance and from backers in the legislative leadership, including Smith, Sen. Christopher Bray, who was standing in for Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, and House sponsors Reps. Helen Head and Tristan Toleno.

Several employees told stories about struggling with the decision to stay home to care for a sick family member and forgoing work income.

Business owners said paid leave improved employee morale, led to better worker retention rates and lowered costs for training new employees.

Lu underscored that businesses around the country are in great need of skilled workers, and paid sick leave benefits can be a valuable recruiting tool.

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Kate Robinson

About Kate

Kate Robinson originated and produced Vermont Public Radio’s Camel’s Hump Radio series from 1999 to 2001. She is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism, was a reporter for the Greenwich Time (CT), the Jersey Journal and the New York Post, the assistant managing editor for The World Press Review, and a senior editor and producer for Prodigy Services’ online news service until moving to Vermont in 1996. Her freelance pieces have appeared in Family Circle and other national magazines and she is the author of two books, the most recent a biography of J. Richardson Dilworth, the head of the Rockefeller family offices.

Email: [email protected]

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