Top lawmakers plan push for paid leave and minimum wage

Mitzi Johnson
Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, addresses the House of Representatives before adjournment at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Friday, May 24, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

House and Senate leaders have sketched out a deal on paid leave and minimum wage weeks ahead of the next legislative session. And it looks almost exactly like a plan that was discussed last May — before negotiations blew up.

Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, say they are hoping to advance the bills to their respective chambers for votes in January, when the Legislature convenes.  

Assuming the legislation passes, Democrats would accomplish something they were unable to do last session: force Republican Gov. Phil Scott to veto the popular policies or let them pass into law. 

The specifics of the minimum wage bill still need to be hammered out, but Johnson said she will back an increase to between $12 and $13 an hour over two years. The current minimum wage is $10.96. The paid leave bill will include mandatory coverage for parental leave and time off to care for family members, but will make personal injury insurance optional.  

While House leaders favored a more robust paid leave program and a moderate minimum wage increase, senators had wanted $15 per hour by 2024 and a less expensive paid leave policy. 

Both sides had tentatively agreed to concessions during the final days of the 2019 legislative session. The deal included a minimum wage proposal to put Vermont on a path to a $12.25 minimum wage by 2021, and a paid leave proposal that made personal injury coverage optional. 

On May 23, House and Senate negotiators said said they were ready to pass them. But the plan would fall apart less than 24 hours later, when Johnson sent Ashe a letter outlining five other possible proposals she could accept or the House would adjourn. Ashe didn’t respond to Johnson before the noon deadline she set in the letter, and the speaker promptly adjourned for the session.

In the six months since the end of session dramatics, Ashe and Johnson have been talking about a path forward for the bills. 

“We acknowledged at the time we were very close, but the clock ran out and so the fact that what we are likely to vote on in January will look similar to what we were discussing at the end of May makes a lot of sense,” Ashe said Friday.

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“We are picking up where the discussions were, and moving forward — which is how it works with bills all the time,” he added.

Tim Ashe
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, presides over the senate at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Johnson now believes that the bills senators passed in May, after the House legislators went home, “are very reasonable compromises.”

“They ultimately listened, and they passed those over after we had adjourned,” Johnson said. The versions of the bills being advanced this coming session do not, however, meet any of the demands made by Johnson in her letter to Ashe in May. 

The timeline for the minimum wage bill will be pushed back a year with a slightly higher target due to the 18 cent increase that will take effect in January under the existing wage-setting process, which is tied to inflation. 

Johnson said that when lawmakers return to Montpelier, they will be able to able to get a sense of how the wage increase would impact Medicaid-funded health workers now that fiscal analysts have had time to study the issue. 

Last year, many House members were concerned to learn that increasing the wage to $15 an hour would mean the state would need to pay tens of millions for some health workers at nursing homes, residential care homes, assisted living residences, and adult day agencies, to see raises. 

Johnson said she is also content with the paid leave proposal, despite the fact that it includes fewer benefits than the version of the program that passed the House last year

Last year, the Senate scaled back the House’s paid leave bill, cutting the number of compensated weeks workers could take to care for sick family members, or newborn children. The Senate’s changes brought the cost of the program down from $80 million to $29 million annually. 

 “If we spend all of our time fighting over what our ideal is and we’re not asking the question ‘Does this viable proposal move us in the right direction,’ then I don’t think we’re doing our jobs,” Johnson said.  

“Part of the issue last year was I didn’t have the votes for what the Senate was proposing on minimum wage. Tim didn’t have the votes for what the House was proposing on paid leave,” she said. “So we’ve got to find a way to work it out.”

Both Ashe and Johnson likely had the votes to pass the bills, but not to override a veto from Scott, who has consistently opposed both policies. The Legislature faces the same predicament in 2020, with the same lawmakers and governor in place. 

Scott has already vetoed versions of each proposal in the past and has offered little reason for Democrats to believe he would support the policies in 2020. Moderate Democrats in the House have generally opposed a minimum wage increase that is not tied to economic performance, while moderates in Senate don’t want a paid leave payroll tax without a simultaneous increase in wages to offset it. 

Gov. Phil Scott speaks during his weekly press conference at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday, March 14, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In January, Scott and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire pitched a two-state paid family leave program paid for by a voluntary —  instead of a mandatory — payroll tax. The Granite State governor has recently indicated he has moved away from the plan

With a year until the next gubernatorial election, Democrats are looking to ramp up the pressure on Scott, who is already fundraising for a possible run at a third term in office.

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At a Vermont Democratic Party gathering last weekend, officials said they plan to use Scott’s vetoes against him on the campaign trail. 

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, who is contemplating a gubernatorial bid, said Democrats have been too concerned about securing the 100 House votes needed to override the governor, and not passing enough of its priorities. 

“If we say we’re not going to do it because we can’t get to 100, then we never expose the governor for his lack of vision, his lack of work for the state of Vermont with respect to working Vermonters and our rural economy,” Zuckerman said.

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Douglas Myers

Guess these lawmakers haven’t seen the evidence that when you force businesses to pay a higher and higher minimum wage, these businesses cut their workforce, raising their product cost or end up going out of business. If this state wants to keep businesses and people here maybe they would stop being impediments.

patrick hurley

the state should stay out of private business. its easy for them to tell someone else to pay more out of the bottom line , which they have no bottom line . most have never had to make payroll

Walter Carpenter

“Guess these lawmakers haven’t seen the evidence that when you force businesses to pay a higher and higher minimum wage, ”

But perhaps they have seen the evidence that if you do not pay people enough to live here they will leave, just like they are leaving now because they are tired of working just to be homeless and on food stamps.

Gary Murdock

Vermont desperately needs a reset and change of focus in Montpelier. To accomplish this, these “Top lawmakers” must be removed from office, they are completely disconnected from the state as a whole, and focus entirely on one and only one segment of society. The session must be shortened…bet it overall duration or days per week… to force these people to focus on what must be accomplished, the business of the state. Procedures must be implemented to allow a more diverse selection of candidates for state office. For example telecommuting, so people with other careers can dedicate time during the week for their “real” jobs. The thousands of ridiculous acts proposed every year are proof that these people have entirely to much time on their hands.

John Freitag

Perhaps before embarking on new programs designed primarily for their sound bite value in an election rather than practicality (see the legislative report on the minimum wage and cliff benefits ) , it might be wise for the legislature to first pay attention to current pressing state needs. These include honestly dealing with the pension crisis, cleaning up our waterways, and adequately funding needed repairs of roads and bridges. All of which should be addressed using existing revenues by adjusting priorities not new taxes.

Paul Richards

It’s not the business of government to mandate matters of employee, employer relations. Benefit packages vary from employer to employer and from industry to industry for a reason. Each situation is uniquely different. A rock crushing company may provide an allowance for steel toed shoes, uniforms and a truck as benefits to their employees because that is what works for them and their employees. That’s the way it is supposed to work, not be mandated by government to provide a certain wage and “paid family leave”. Paid family leave will just open up another opportunity for people to slack off and take advantage of a freebie.
Keep government out of private business. It’d bad enough we have to pay for all of the government employees largess. Programs like paid family leave will just embolden the public sector unions to bully us for more. They always have to be above the private sector so whatever they can do to raise that only benefits them in the long run. It’s a scam.

Martin Dole

Family paid leave if every employee pays into this then the benefits must be equal no matter how much each employee earns. The system needs to be fair and equal. It would not be fair for someone who makes more receive to receive less benefits because he earns more. Watch out for employees who go to a different state as you take another deduction out of people’s paychecks.

Martin Dole

Higher minimum wage will decrease employees and increase self check out. Look at Bernie’s campaign he raised his stall to $15.00 and then let people go. I am not against a higher wage just the way to go about it.

Mike Powers

Additional tax further driving the nail in the coffin for struggling Vermont businesses. The lieutenant governors road to the “right thing to do” moves Vermont ever closer to a welfare state that will implode as our working resident population continues to shrink. Not a pretty picture for the future.

don white

Where will Johnson and Ashe find all that money to pay federally subsidized health care employees? VT will have to do a big tax raise to fund politically promised pay raises. The irony to this whole story is we live next to a state with a 7.50/min wage.They have higher avg incomes in NH and growing economy. How do residents of the NH survive with out state politicians raising 7.50/hr oppressive wage . Yet , here politicians want to endlessly bribe their constituencies with free raises, free paid leave, and rationed health care as long as it not on their dime. Forcing higher minimum wages reduces hours worked and also favors established corporate monopolies by eliminating any upstart small local business competition who cant afford the higher wages. The fact that the state employs all these federally subsidized employees and couldn’t afford to give them the raises it expects all other businesses to provide tells it all. Yet , here we are again with the same old same old.

Shane Milford

You know the thing about babies is they take 9 months to arrive, it is called family planning. My wife did not have short term disability insurance and we put money aside for 9 months to cover her being out of work. Vt worker’s pay enough, its about time for some personal responsibility. 2 types of residents in vt those that provide to the government and those that rely on the government. Unfortunately montpelier only cares about those that rely on government.

Irene Stewart

Family leave will only benefit a small segment of the population in Vermont. Yet these progressives and Democrats (who cannot start the legislative session without raising more taxes) insist that ALL workers pay for this family leave NEW PAYROLL TAX. People that will NEVER use this, will be forced to pay so that a few can enjoy time off, such as to “bond” with a new baby. Frankly, highway robbery of workers in VT. This new tax is not for the good of the general public – just for a few.
Just remember who votes for more taxation next November – and please, do not vote them back to Montpelier. They have no clue what distress they are putting on Vermonters by doing this. They are starting in January, putting new taxes on your pay check, for you to keep working and never use the benefit, that a few so desperately want. Will it be abused? You bet it will. Businesses will suffer with so many absent employees.

Scott Beck

Noticeably absent from this piece is a clear connection between paid family leave benefits and revenue to support it. Why not just let readers know that a payroll tax will be created that will siphon off $29M from tax weary Vermonters. Didn’t the Fitch downgrade comment that Vermont was at its taxing capacity?

Job Tate

Scrubbing their bios, it appears that Ashe’s experience with private sector business is exactly zero and Johnson’s is reserved for having given some piano lessons and the occasional designing of scarves. You get what you pay (vote) for.

Vermont, you have a problem and its name is Montpelier.

James Taylor

Anyone who isnt afraid of work can find some type of employment in Vt right now. To ask employers to give an employee a raise overnight before they have even walked through the door, is economically irresponsible.

Glenn Thompson

I think I’m beginning to understand the thinking of a Progressive. If we up the minimum wage, it’s going to be easier to get through a carbon tax? Do I have that one right?

Thaddeus Cline

Why conservatives don’t want to keep an employee by paying them a fair wage and letting them stay home to care for a sick person is beyond me . The stress an employee goes threw to put food on the table , care for themselves and or a sick person simply kills them at an earlier age . Thats medical science.
So an employer will now know their employee will live a shorter life ?
If the employer doesn’t help it’s time for the state to step in . Either forcing the employer to pay up or getting the funds.
Having a roof over your head , food on the table and time to care for a child or a relative . Is a human right all employers need to consider before they even start a business.
No business loans should go to employers unless they can show they can care for their employees . Cost of living should be established within 60 miles of any business. And wages set to cover said employees within that area .
A human right is a human right if you can’t give it maybe your not human .

Tim Vincent

A very small number of legislators have actual experience in the private sector.
It’s always other people’s money to them AND they get to feel good about themselves.
A win-win.
But, remember, someone elected these people.
People get the government they deserve.

“We don’t need no stinking economics.”

Karen McIlveen1

Easy to say and do when you are reaping the benefits of being an elite.

Ritva Burton

With the new legislative session looming on the horizon may I remind the folks going up to Montpelier that there are 106,000 retired senior citizen in Vermonter receiving Social Security! That is about 1 in 6 of the total population of Vermont of 600K. These folks will not be earning more money, their income is not going up, they cannot afford ANY new taxes.

Irene Stewart

Holcome, a gubernatorial candidate, in a commentary she wrote two weeks ago, forgot the 106000 seniors…wrote that she cares about the young and keeping them in Vermont.
Well, maybe the 106,000 seniors should forget to pay their taxes if she ever became governor. No revenue from them…would she balance the budget of the State of Vermont?
When seniors withdraw money from their retirement account, or if lucky to have one, from their 401K plan. Will they be earning money to replace that? No, never. But yet, they will be taxed, and the Progressives and Democrats could not care less. The forgotten Vermonters. Will the increase in a minimum wage help them? No. but their money is needed.

Laura Stone

There is evidence all over this site of people not being able to afford to live in the state- the Fallout of this is in nearly all the articles. This is what the roots of much crime and social issues are- this is all the results of people in decline. The crime and failure is not THE Problem, but the symptom of the real problem which is that people cannot find a path upward. Either they don’t have the tools, education or the path is not there and they fail- then we read about this in the crime and Obits.

And yet there is article after article of the government looking to do even more- which translates into MORE Money that everyone is being taxed=Higher Prices on ALL Products across the board= An Even Higher Cost of Living=even more failure!

Remember when Reagan said the worst words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

When the ship is sinking, the answer is not to put more water in the boat.


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