Business & Economy

Senate passes sick leave bill without small business exemption

John Campbell
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell addresses lawmakers on the opening day of the 2016 legislative session. Photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger

Following a dramatic vote-reversal last week, the Vermont Senate on Wednesday passed a bill to require employers to provide paid sick leave. The measure did not include an exemption for businesses with five or fewer employees.

The fate of that section of the bill had been in doubt when Sen. William Doyle, R-Washington, said — after the Senate had already passed the bill — that he wanted to change his vote. The exemption to let the smallest employers not have to provide the benefit had failed 15-14, with Doyle in the majority. Changing his mind meant the exemption would go through, so Senate leaders requested time to develop a strategy to not have that happen.

They were successful. In the end, the exemption was not included. Then the full measure passed the Senate easily.

Senate Democrats, led by Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, were able to defeat the exemption employing a rarely used legislative gambit — replacing one amendment with another. Campbell’s amendment called for the Vermont Department of Labor and Agency of Commerce and Community Development to conduct a survey of Vermont employers with five or fewer employees and report on it by Jan. 15, 2017, at the latest.

Employers with five or few employees had already been granted a delay until January of 2018 to have the law go into effect for their businesses.

The vote on the study replaced the so-called “Campion amendment,” which had called for the carve-out for employers with five or fewer employees.

The Campbell replacement amendment passed 15-14. Because Doyle had changed his mind, Campbell needed to find another vote. It came from Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington.

The bill will now go to the House and by week’s end, it will be in conference committee or, though it’s now less likely, go to the full House, which could vote to concur.

Campbell was pleased with the outcome.

“I believe it’s extremely important for people who are either ill or their children are ill to have the ability to feel comfortable taking a day off rather than forcing themselves to go to work because they can’t afford to lose a paycheck. And really that’s the crux of this whole thing. Some people call it a labor bill. I’ve called it a social bill with a health care component,” Campbell said.

“I believe we have a very strong bill and I think we’ve taken into consideration the concerns of businesses and small businesses,” Campbell said. “I’m hoping that the House will recognize as such.”

Gov. Shumlin supports the bill and did not support the five-employer or fewer exemption.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who’s running for governor, criticized the bill without the exemption.

“Today’s vote to not exempt Vermont’s very smallest businesses from yet another mandate is a sign that the Legislature does not understand how difficult it is to do business in our state. As someone who has been both an employee and an employer, I understand the importance of treating employees well and making a payroll,” Scott said.

“It was my hope the Senate would have adopted this exemption, thereby avoiding an additional mandate and burden on Vermont’s smallest businesses while also expanding sick leave to many Vermonters who don’t have it today. I have confidence that Vermont’s business community wants to do the best thing for their employees, but in order for them to accomplish that, we need to give them the flexibility and room to grow.

Sears, who voted for the Campion amendment last week, said he had heard from a number of constituents who were unhappy with his vote last week. He hinted broadly that he no longer supported the exemption.

Today began with what in legislative language is rather quaintly called “Consideration Reconsidered.” Campbell made the “Substitute Proposal of Amendment” providing for the survey of employers with five or fewer employees. It is to focus on the cost of providing earned sick leave to this subset of Vermont businesses. The report will go to the General Assembly just as the bill takes effect next year.

Campbell said he felt confident that he and his fellow lawmakers will be able to adjust the bill once they have the findings.

Campbell said his amendment was intended to get more information before the smallest employers have to put the rules into effect in 2018.

“We all have been in the situation of having a work colleague come in with a flu or virus and we’ve seen friends who have children who cannot afford to stay home and miss that paycheck,” Campbell said. “On the other hand, the question has come up of the impact something like this can have on ‘mom-and-pop’ employers. Some say it’s only a few hundred dollars, but what some of us don’t understand is how many things they have to deal with.”

Throughout debate on the bill, legislators have shown frustration at the lack of hard data on such things as how many small businesses will now be required to pay for sick leave because they don’t offer this benefit now, what the actual costs will be across the range of businesses, and how many employees would be left out of the 60,000 or so the law is intended to help if there are carve-outs for the smallest businesses.

The best estimate of how many employees would be affected by the five-and-under exemption was 13,000, according to the Department of Labor. But in testifying before the Senate committee on a proposed carve-out for businesses with four or fewer employees, Department of Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan had to stress that the DOL has had to rely on figures from a 2013 Fringe Benefits Study of private employers that shows business sizes beginning with those with three to nine employees.

The successful Campbell maneuver was the fruit of several conversations over the weekend, according to Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, who had seen it used effectively in the past. It actually involved two votes. First the Senate had to vote in favor of substituting the Campbell amendment for the Campion amendment and only then could it vote on Campbell’s amendment to the bill.

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Kate Robinson

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  • Walter Carpenter

    “We all have been in the situation of having a work colleague come in with a flu or virus and we’ve seen friends who have children who cannot afford to stay home and miss that paycheck,” Campbell said”

    I’ve gone to work in the height of a flu before because I had to. I want to thank Senator Campbell. Thousands of Vermont workers who do not now get any paid sick days, or benefits at all for that matter, will not now be cut out of sick days because of what he did here.

    • Craig Powers

      Remind me to not patronize any place you work at, so I do not get sick.

  • Tom Grout

    Sears changing his vote is politics showing its worst hand. Something behind the scenes had to take place like another senator supporting a future Sears bill.
    If this happened on a national level the liberals would be up in arms claiming special interest intervened. Where is the liberal outrage over this sudden change?
    I sincerely hope the House will wake up and add this exemption into the bill and I bet Sears wishes it to so he can claim to his district he voted both ways.

  • Dan Carver

    The choice has been made and if the ideology was to be embraced, then all businesses had to be included to have an impact; all large and most mid-size businesses already provide the benefit, and now to be “fair” all folks will be treated the same, whether they can afford it or not.

    The key metrics to watch, to see the impact of the bill, will be the number of small business closures and unemployment filings in our most rural counties. The folks owning businesses in these areas do not have the foot traffic volume and related sales to cover extra costs, which their counter parts in densely populated sections of Vermont have. If they close shop, there are not many alternatives for their former employees to find new jobs.

    OK. With this behind the legislature, please focus on changing the delivery of government services. How can you be effective when the tenure of the leader of a department averages 18 months and the rank and file tenure is 30 years? No real changes occur in “the box” when the real world has changed drastically since 1986, when the employee learned how to do the job. Time to lean the structure and reduce current and long term state liabilities.

    • David Dempsey

      You are so right. The Senator for my district has been in the legislature since 1983. I have sent several group e-mails to the senator and my two representatives over the last few years.
      The reps always respond, but the senator never has. I called him last year and he told me, and I quote, “I don’t do email, I do letters and phone.” Enough said.

      David Dempsey

      Brookfield, VT

  • Roger Sweatt

    It is time to not allow any amendments to a bill, special interests will use it to alter the original bill in their favor. This is yet another intrusion into private business affairs. The cost will be added passed on to the public as usual. Some one is patting themselves on the back, thinking they have puled one over on the public. Not all are deceived.

  • Gilbert W. Chapman

    Really something when you think about it . . .

    The Liberals hate ‘Big Business’, but then turn around and ‘put the wood’ to the small ‘Mom & Pop’ operations ~ restaurants, used car dealers, convenience stores, gas stations, lumber/hardware stores, auto body shops, bars, small professional practices (dentists, engineering firms, etc.) . . .

  • Keith Stern

    So does an employer have to pay an employee for a day called in sick and then find the employee wasn’t actually sick, just blowing off work?

    • Howard Dindo

      Let’s hope the bill becomes effective prior to November 11th, the first Monday of deer season. I always get sick the weekend before and need to recover from the deadly virus for the next 14 days! Can my sick leave note be signed by my uncle? It would be a lot easier for me for him to sign it, since he would be at hunting camp with me!

      • Neil Johnson

        That’s great comment, very witty.

        It’s interesting that a study was just done, 65% of people don’t have $1,000 saved up for emergencies. Which would include being sick. How many people have the latest smart phone and pay $1200 per year for the service? You could get a cheap phone and after a year have a $1,000 saved, then go back to your must have phone.

        See it’s about responsibility, financial education and budgeting. People calling in sick because they are hung, over tired, powder day, turkey day, bear hunting, etc, gets old real fast. Employers are caught short that day.

        As a business owner I know have to have higher reserves to pay for my employees lack of financial responsibility. We’ll remember in November.

    • Susanna Rodani

      Under this new rule I believe the employee is protected by HIPPA so the employer is not entitled to know anything about the nature of the employee ailment.

    • Judith McLaughlin

      Maybe so, but then Vermont is considered an “at will” state. An employer may terminate an employee for any reason as long as it is not one of the protect classes e.g.: race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. So, go ahead and abuse those sick days….!

  • Tom Sullivan

    Voters who own small businesses will remember this next november.

  • sandra bettis

    This is a wonderful bill – Vermonters thank you – the exemption would have been discriminatory.

  • Susanna Rodani

    Something is wrong with this assumption that a self employed business owner, a proprietor in Vermont, can afford to take a day off with pay, let alone pay a worker for not working. The free spirit just took another blow in the wallet.

    When these types of reality gaps are legislated the result is always the same; honest people become criminals for trying to feed their families.

    Next time one of our legislators gets a bill from their plumber or carpenter for a day’s worth of labor for the worker who was out sick, do you think they will be happy to pay it?

    • Neil Johnson

      We need common sense people like you in the Green Mountain Party…..great example..

  • Rich Lachapelle

    …Another nail in the coffin of businesses in Vermont is any bill that mandates a particular FRINGE BENEFIT to be given, particularly one that relies on the honor system. And once this camel gets it’s nose under the tent, assume it will eventually apply to taking the day off to bring your therapy bunny to the vet and your sister to the methadone clinic. The amount of PAID time off and the stipulations on how one uses it is a perk that is part of any employment package. If it doesn’t suit your needs, then look elsewhere for employment.
    Mandating UNPAID time off while holding one’s job would be a palatable alternative but really, how can the government say to a private business that they have to pay someone for NOT doing work?
    Example: you are an advocate for this paid “sick time” and you have a plumbing emergency on saturday and can’t flush your toilet. You call a plumber who says he will be over first thing monday morning. By monday noon, he still hasn’t shown up so you call. He tells you that he needed to bring his Mom to a doctor appointment and will be unable to deal with your problem that day. However, he kindly reminds you that he will still be presenting you a bill for his services in addition to the bill you will get when he does get the problem fixed. Is that ok with you? That is what the advocates are asking of the Vermont business community.
    Is it really too much to ask that people just stay home when sick out of concern for those around them and just sacrifice a day’s pay? It’s the “right thing to do”.

    • Neil Johnson

      You can thank the DNC and Washington for running our one party state. This came directly from President Obama to Governor Shumlin and our representatives. It had nothing to do with Vermont citizens running our own state.

      • Rich Lachapelle

        People concerned about these kinds of unwarranted government intrusions into business activities and liberty issues in general have a golden opportunity to remedy the problem starting on Town Meeting Day followed up in November.

      • David Tucker

        Neil, you always seem to have the answer to every issue that comes up on Digger, how is it that you have not been anointed yet? Do you have evidence to support your claim that this came from the President, or are you using the Fox News word generator to write these things for you?

        • Neil Johnson

          Previous article in Vermont Digger stating the President sent his man to talk with our representatives.

        • Neil Johnson

          Hi Dave,

          Here’s the Vermont Digger article talking about it.

          Our political system is broken, on both sides. Several of us are trying to make a difference. There’s much to learn on my part. Yes I do comment on topics that I’ve had some bad experience with in our state. Both parties are failing to represent the citizens, like most all news organizations. Everyone is influenced by big money, just different sides. And yes I feel strongly people should have better financial education and skills .There are so many people that are broke or bankrupt from ignorance. It’s a hard lesson I’d rather not see people experience, as I have. It’s usually not because of the money people earn but how they spend it that gets them in trouble.

          • David Tucker

            There is a big difference between what that article said and how you described what happened in your post, but thanks for the follow up. Cheers.

          • Neil Johnson

            The president sends his main man to Montpelier to convince our legislative body to do something and a couple days later they vote the presidents wish……how is that representing the wish of Vermonters?

            There is but one voice in the Vermont press, on opinion that is politically correct in Vermont. There are usually two sides to every coin.

  • Julia Curry

    Wow. People are actually voting down a man’s statement about his own experience without paid sick days – talk about being in denial.

    • Rich Lachapelle

      Can we please get down off of our high horse and stop the posturing. Paid time off is a FRINGE BENEFIT not a “human rights issue”.

    • Neil Johnson

      People should live within their means. People should have an emergency/sick fund. 65% of the population doesn’t have $1,000 saved in their checking account. And that’s a pretty low savings bar. Banks make BILLIONS on over draft fees, due to people not living within their means. I’m not seeing how any person should be responsible for somebody else’s lack of financial planning. How about people taking some responsibility for their lives?

      • bruce wilkie

        Pretty hard to save $1000 on a minimum wage salary.

        • Neil Johnson

          Actually it’s not. I’ve done it, people do it all the time. It’s called room mates and a part time job. Pretty easy if you want to do that. You can also start before you leave home. Working is not a crime, it’s not a prison term or punishment, it’s what we all do to pull our share. After a year, when people get better they get an increase in pay. Trust me know employer wants some one who’s only worth minimum wage working for them. They want their employee to improve and become better at their job.

  • Ron Pulcer

    Some businesses have been providing CTO time policy, which is “Combined” Time Off. It combines allotted Vacation, Personal and Sick time into one bucket. So if you are healthier in a given year, you get more vacation days. If you are more sick in a given year, you get less vacation, but you don’t have to worry about not getting paid.

    The CTO approach would seem to take care of the Powder Fever or the Hunting Season Virus types of maladies. You could call in sick, but it wouldn’t matter, because it dings your CTO days, whether you call it a sick day.

    As for restaurants, whether Mom & Pop, or larger chain restaurant, I have tended to avoid going to restaurants because I have seen sick employees serving food and handling money or credit cards at cash register. Depending on how this goes, I might reconsider eating out more at restaurants now. A few extra customers might cover for the sick pay, think about it.

  • Tony Ketting

    There should have been an exemption for the high school students who live at home. As a small business owner I am often faced with callouts even when they aren’t paid for those days. Now I will have to pay for them to hit the beach or the mountain. Nobody seems to give a da** about small businesses here. I’m a person too but Montpelier doesn’t care about how I’m doing because I don’t have my hand out. Those who support this bill are in large part only those who do not write payroll checks. Cannot wait to cash out and leave this state.

    • Susanna Rodani

      I really hate to say this because I really hate to be negative, but here goes:
      Vermont is actually two states, polarized by wealth, graft and corruption on one end and poverty, ignorance and stupidity on the other end.
      I am of the same conclusion as you Tony. I came here because I bought the promises, but they turned out to be lies. I’m staying only until I can leave as fast as possible.
      If you don’t understand how this happens, start reading VT Digger every day; it won’t take long for you to wake up from your dream.
      Thank you VT Digger. I only wish you had been around sooner.


  • DougTolles

    I note the last paragraph, where Senator Bray admits his complicity in the scheme. Once again, Bray gives the knife to all the small businesses in Addison County. Please remember this come Election Day as we hopefully replace Bray with someone who will represent the people.

  • Santina Huskey

    Without the exemption for 5 or less employees Vermont will find itself once again hurting those they believe their helping.

    New businesses will simply gear their hiring practices to Seasonal (every business has it’s slow and busy times) and Temps. Yearly employees will be 18 hours or less a week and hiring two part timers or even 3 gives the business better coverage and exempts them from this new law . Creating part time positions also saves the business from having to provide mandated insurance too. Big savings.

    With small businesses hiring part timers and established businesses cutting hours to skate past this law your looking at a lot more VT residents getting their insurance off the State exchange rather then thru business. Since many positions in VT are minimum wage extra residents jumping on the exchange and onto Medicaid will increase the states already high pay outs.

    As for Shumlin’s comment that a couple hundred won’t break a business that’s true. Yet when a business is looking at Vermont and New Hampshire and Comparing the minimum wage (2.00 more an hour in VT), The mandated sick time for full time employees, and perhaps a carbon tax coming down the pipeline honestly which location will most businesses choose?

    As for those who will reply that businesses choosing to make the above changes or stay clear of VT altogether are selfish bad businesses let me ask you this. Doesn’t everyone makes choices in their lives and family arrangements to minimize expenses and increase money for day to day living? Small businesses in VT are generally small family run endeavors not wall street.

    For those businesses that have worked hard and are successful enough to have 6 or more full time employees then I have no issue with their providing additional benefits and most likely they don’t either.

    Vermont as always is the “first in the nation” to not exempt small business with mandated sick time laws. Perhaps considering the failure of our health care exchange and other first in the nation ideas we should try following for once rather then leading.

  • Glenn Thompson

    The Small Business exemption really needs to be in this bill. I question, if a number of Reps in Montpelier even know anyone with a small business with less than 5 employees? It is easy to start a new business in Vermont. Being able to turn it into a success in Vermont, not so easy! Removing the exemption from the bill just adds another roadblock small business owners faces that makes their long term business objectives more difficult to achieve!