Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ruth Hardy, of East Middlebury, who is a state senator from Addison County and the former executive director of Emerge Vermont.
To say last week was difficult and fraught at the Vermont Statehouse is an understatement. With supposedly “veto-proof” majorities in both Houses, we Democrats failed to deliver legislation on two of our biggest priorities of the session: creation of a paid family leave program and an increase in the minimum wage. As a new senator who came into the Senate after years working for organizations focused on women’s equality, what struck me most was how gender played into the perception and reality of the story.
The nearly all-male press corps that covers the Vermont Statehouse was eager to turn the negotiations between the House and Senate into a he-said, she-said affair, as their coverage pitted Senate Pro Tempore Tim Ashe against House Speaker Mitzi Johnson. One columnist with a history of sexist commentary characterized Johnson’s stance on the issues as “entirely female.” Such reductive assumptions, made by him and others, ignores the reality of the situation, the roles of multiple players both men and women, and the end goals of the legislation under debate.
The reality is that the lead negotiators throughout the process were two women: House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski and Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint. Another important negotiator for the Senate was Sen. Alison Clarkson, vice chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee and an unparalleled force in the Legislature. Balint and Krowinski met regularly throughout the session to communicate priorities and progress, and Clarkson joined in the final intense days of shuttle diplomacy as the sides tried to reach agreement.
Women played key roles on both sides of the negotiations. Thus, the simplistic view that talks were a gender battle between Ashe and Johnson is both inaccurate and dismissive of the important role women in the Senate played in setting our priorities and promoting our position.
Further, the primary House priority of a paid family leave program was framed as a program for women, while the primary Senate priority of increasing the minimum wage was seen as something for everyone. The reality is that both initiatives were supported by majorities in both Houses, both benefit women and men, and both are likely to directly benefit women more than men.
Although gender roles are changing, women remain the primary caregivers of new babies and sick relatives. However, babies and sick relatives are equally male and female, and caring for them also benefits the recipients of care. Further, it saves child care and health care costs, and creates stronger, healthier children and families. Similarly, while minimum wage workers cover the gender spectrum, the majority identify as women. Jobs that pay minimum wage are concentrated in service and care industries where most of the workers are women. It’s no coincidence that both proposals seek to pay women more for the work they already do.
The notion that the speaker and House are on the side of women while the pro tempore and Senate are not is ridiculous. The majorities in both chambers wanted both programs and both benefit women. The difference of course was how each chamber sought to craft their versions of paid family leave and a minimum wage increase.
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Broadly speaking, the House wanted a more expansive paid family leave program that includes personal sick leave, as well as more weeks of parental and family sick leave. While the program would be aimed at a broader swath of Vermonters, including more men, it would also be much more expensive. Most important to note is that the House version of the program would be paid for strictly by workers, through a new employee payroll tax.
The Senate paid family leave program included only parental and family sick leave, in order to control the cost of the program and because paid personal sick leave and short-term disability benefits are already more broadly available to many workers. The cost of the Senate plan would have been shared equally between workers and employers. Senators were interested in easing the burden on workers and also ensuring that employers contribute to a program that would help them attract and retain quality employees.
Toward the end of the session, after weeks of hard work by both majority leaders, a compromise on paid family leave was reached, which would have included parental leave and family sick leave, an optional personal sick leave program, added weeks of parental and family sick leave, and the cost being fully borne by workers unless employers voluntarily chipped in. The compromise legislation was put on hold until a deal on minimum wage could be reached.
The minimum wage proposal the House advanced would ratchet up the wage slowly, reaching $15 by 2026 at the earliest. It includes several “pause buttons” along the way to account for changes in the economy or state budget issues particularly related to Medicaid, as well as studies on various categories of workers. The Senate’s original proposal was nearly identical to what the full Legislature passed last year, phasing in wage increases to get to $15 by 2024, with no pause buttons and only one study. Early last week, in an attempt to compromise, the Senate passed a scaled back plan to reach $12.50 by 2021.
So while the Senate was portrayed by some as the body less willing to compromise and less eager to help women, we agreed to a compromise on paid family leave early on and continued to offer legislation on minimum wage that would move us closer to agreement. I was not in the room for negotiations, but I heard regular updates from the Senate women who were.
In the end, the speaker issued a public ultimatum and soon after walked away from negotiations. The Senate answered by sending the House amended bills with the agreed upon paid family leave compromise and a minimum wage proposal close to what the speaker demanded. By the time the bills reached the House, they had decided to adjourn until January and would not act on the bills.
It’s true the hour was late and the Legislature was already a week into overtime. It’s probable that the governor would have vetoed both the paid family leave and minimum wage bills. However, if we as Democrats walk away from negotiations on legislation aimed at helping workers, women and families, and the most vulnerable Vermonters, then we have strayed from our core values.
In the end, this final battle clouded the excellent work we did across the board to help Vermonters, protect our people and environment, and sustain a healthy economy. Much of this work benefits women, including landmark legislation and the beginnings of a constitutional amendment to ensure reproductive liberty now and in the future.
As a lifelong feminist and women’s rights activist, I don’t shy away from playing the gender card. But if one chooses to read last week’s legislative episode as a battle of the sexes, then it’s a choice to ignore the complete story. This simplistic read negates the work of women in both houses and fails to hold both legislative leaders responsible for their negotiation strategies and decisions. It also ignores the true policy goals of the legislation in question and lets troubling sexism by some observers slide in a flurry of false equivalences. Communicating such complexities can be tricky, but in world that is rarely black and white, it’s imperative we try.