Business & Economy

House passes Senate version of paid sick leave bill

Rep. Oliver Olsen, photo by Josh Larkin.
Rep. Oliver Olsen. File photo by Josh Larkin/VTDigger

The House voted Wednesday to concur with the Senate version of paid sick leave by a vote of 81 to 64, after a long drawn out debate.

Rep. Oliver Olsen, I-Londonderry, attempted to recommit the bill to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee on the grounds that there were unanswered questions about costs associated with the bill. That proposal was defeated on a roll call vote 87 to 58.

Earlier in the day the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee had, by a strong majority — 6-1-1 — voted the bill out, turning down five amendments which the committee agreed would have watered down the bill. One of the proposals would have exempted employers with three or fewer workers; another would have given new businesses three years to implement the paid leave mandate.

In the end, Olsen, Rep. Alyson Eastman, I-Orford, and Rep. Paul Dame, R-Essex, withdrew their amendments on the House floor.

After the vote, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Sen. John Campbell and House Speaker Shap Smith issued a joint statement praising the bill. The governor is expected to sign the legislation.

“This legislation puts an end to an era where some Vermonters were faced with the decision of going to work sick or potentially losing their job. Many Vermont businesses do the right thing by offering paid sick days to their employees. This important right will now be extended to all Vermonters. That’s the right thing to do for workers, businesses, and public health. We’re proud that Vermont will become the fifth state to guarantee this important protection to its citizens.”

H.187, sometimes known as the Healthy Workplaces Bill, is officially “an act relating to absence from work for health care and safety.” It was passed by the House last April with a 72-63 vote. Since that original vote, support for the bill has increased after the Senate added exemptions to ease the impact on businesses, including a delay of one year before it takes effect for new businesses. Temporary and seasonal employees were exempted in the original House bill.

The Senate bill exempts workers under 18 and part-time workers who work fewer than 18 hours a week on average and for fewer than 20 weeks a year. There were also some tweaks regarding who is covered among state part-time employees and some health-care and school employees as well as per-diem and “intermittent” employees. Businesses with five or fewer employees who work 30 hours a week or less are exempt from the paid sick leave mandate until Jan. 1, 2018.

Wednesday’s House debate was an opportunity for both opponents and supporters to plead their case. Opponents focused on their reservations about the impact of the bill on small business, which they see as struggling in the present economic climate with too many fees and regulations, while supporters declared the legislation is a much-needed, family-friendly benefit that will help businesses attract and retain good workers.

Reps. Olsen and Dame objected to what they said is the potential impact of unintended consequences on businesses. They also said the bill leaves “a host of unanswered questions,” as Olsen put it.

Rep. Helen Head, D-S. Burlington, emphasized the flexibility for employers built into the bill, and she underscored that any employer that offers a plan that equals or exceeds the requirements of the bill is unaffected. Asked at one point if an employer is required to send an employee home who arrives at work sick, she said there was nothing in the bill that stands in the way of an employer having their own personnel policy since the bill allows employers to make their own rules.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Bennington, said H.187 goes “way beyond sick leave” by including “care of an employee’s extended family.” Browning said the mandate is a “small-business burden” which could cost a business $1,000 or $2,000 a year. She balked at the idea that the responsibility would be “on business owners to resolve a family situation.”

The bill offers paid time off for a wide range of family illness or injury, and includes doctor’s visits, caring for sick family members from child to grandparent and arranging for services or care for the employee or a family member who is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

Lindsay DesLauriers, director of Main Street Alliance of Vermont, which has lobbied for the bill for several years, said in a statement that the bill was balanced between the needs of workers and businesses. “It was a long road to the governor’s desk for this bill, but the work was well worth it,” DesLauriers said.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said the new law will unduly burden new and small businesses, and that Democrats are favoring ideology over reality.

“The joint fiscal office estimates the cost of this law to Vermont private employers to be $2.8 – $6.3 million in 2018 and between $4.8 – $11 million annually thereafter,” Turner said in a statement. “The Democrats have passed several pieces of legislation this biennium that place an additional burden on Vermont employers. However, they have not supported steps to improve the business climate, which would allow businesses to prosper and Vermont’s economy to grow.”

Editor’s note: A statement from House Minority Leader Don Turner was added at 10:30 a.m., Feb. 18.

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Kate Robinson

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  • edward letourneau

    This state has been taken over by the liberal kooks. It use to be right wing nuts we had to be careful with, now we a government that is failing to do what the people paying the costs need.

    • Walter Carpenter

      ” government that is failing to do what the people paying the costs need.”

      As an employee who has had to go into work with a flu, a virus, a temperature over 100, or even pneumonia or face the loss of pay or even the job, I can say from experience that this is something we needed our government to do for us.

    • Deborah Ploof

      No, it’s the government doing what’s “right” for the people paying the cost.

  • Warren Van Wyck

    Obamacare introduced the 30 hour work week to hundreds of thousands of workers nationwide. This bill will introduce the 18 hour work week to thousands of Vermont workers. Many Vermont small businesses can not afford this state mandated benefit.

    • Deborah Ploof

      State mandated benefit? Do you really think that it’s alright for an employee who is sick and needs to stay home to get well or stay’s home to care for a sick child, deserves to lose a days pay? Maybe you would rather they go to work sick in order to pay their bills. This is not a benefit that is given to us, we earn it.

  • Mike Lannen

    If you can not afford to pay your employees when they are sick, and they fear for their jobs to call out sick, then you should not have employees.

    • Neil Johnson

      When employers say, you have so many paid days off, use them as you see fit. How do the employees use them? That tells you everything. Big Ski industries and other big seasonal companies are exempted, but us little guys aren’t. Very convenient, wonder what lobbyists got that taken care of?

    • Tom Grout

      Maybe the reason why they have a job is because the owner is being thrifty enough to hire another individual.

  • Gary Murdock

    “Rep. Alyson Eastman, R-Orford”
    Try I-Orwell. Where the heck is Orford?

    • walter Moses

      in new hampshire.

  • This is a help for us all. If you ever eat at a restaurant…. or if you have children who are in Child Care…. There are times, and this is one, where “business” which means you and I, need a little support to compete on an even playing field (PS: the giant company that runs the ski area I work at understands that it’s not very good for “business” having sick employees at work)…

  • Rich Lachapelle

    What ever happened to having common consideration for your fellow human beings? If you are sick with something communicable, how about just giving up a day or two of pay or using vacation time because it’s the right thing to do. If you are living that close to the edge, the cost of living that is the result of Vermont’s liberal fiscal policies is more at fault than your own pay scale. Why should your illness or family obligations become your employer’s burden?

    • Seth Gillim

      I believe the expression you are searching for is “Let them eat cake.”