Politics

As child care rises to the top of the legislative agenda, Democrats fracture on paid leave

House Speaker Jill Krowinski, left, and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth. File photos by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott announced that his administration would, at long last, begin to offer a voluntary paid family and medical leave plan through a private insurer — first to roughly 8,000 state employees, and eventually to any employer or individual worker who wanted to buy in.

The next day, the Vermont Democratic Party responded with a blistering missive. The voluntary plan “fails to meet basic needs,” the party wrote in its statement, a fact it deemed “unsurprising,” given that “Governor Scott has proven time and again that his priorities lie in stopping Democrats from advancing their agenda rather than creating meaningful change for Vermonters.”

And indeed, Scott, who has twice vetoed mandatory paid leave bills sent to him by Democrats in the Legislature, looks unlikely to play ball with those who seek a more robust policy. Asked Tuesday if he could be convinced to change his thinking on the subject, he replied that it’s “all about the funding.”

“If it involves a payroll tax — probably not,” he said.

But the Republican governor’s veto pen is not the only obstacle in the way of Vermont enacting the kind of leave policy that most advocates argue is necessary to make the benefit truly accessible to all. Democrats stand in the way, too.

The November elections delivered to Vermont’s left party ostensibly veto-proof supermajorities in the Vermont House and Senate. But Democrats are not a monolith, and supermajorities are only “potential” supermajorities, as Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, who is set to lead the Vermont Senate as president pro tempore, has taken pains to point out.

Another argument Baruth has made: With a costly expansion to child care on the agenda, now is not the time to also tackle paid leave. 

Lawmakers set a goal in 2021 that no family should pay more than 10% of their income on child care. A report due back to the Legislature in January will tell them exactly how much this would cost, but prior estimates suggest the price tag would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

“Going at two big programs at once seems to me a way to fill out a caricature of Democrats — that they are not being careful, that they're not being attentive to people's financial situation,” Baruth said in an interview Monday. 

He noted that while a majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus had, in their first meeting in November, named child care as one of their top three priorities, he could only recall two members citing paid leave.

“I would also say that just personally, I haven't been contacted by any constituents or any lobbyists on paid family leave,” Baruth said. “Whereas my constituents, and all sorts of advocates, have talked to me about child care.”

The United States remains the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t require paid family leave at the federal level, although 11 states have enacted mandatory programs that are funded by payroll taxes. Vermont-specific figures aren’t readily available, but nationally, recent federal statistics suggest less than a quarter of all workers are offered paid family leave through their employer.

Scott administration officials argue that since any worker will, by 2025, be allowed to opt-in to the plan put forward by the governor, it will achieve what Democrats want — universality — but more cheaply. Advocates and experts generally argue the opposite. 

“In a situation where coverage is optional and voluntary, and where the benefits that are being provided are very scant compared to other places, workers won’t have the leave that they need,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy at New America, a left-leaning Washington, D.C. think tank. 

Scott’s plan guarantees six weeks of paid time off with a 60% wage replacement. A mandatory all-in plan, Shabo said, would be able to offer better benefits more cost effectively.

Michelle Fay, the executive director of Voices for Vermont’s Children, an advocacy group that is renewing a push for paid leave this session, also argues that what Scott has set in motion will leave behind the workers who need help the most. Low-wage workers are unlikely to pay out of pocket for a plan that doesn’t cover their basic expenses.

“It's perplexing that with 20 years of data on how to design an equitable, inclusive paid leave program, the administration continues to put forward a plan that doesn't meet the minimum standard — which is universal coverage, adequate wage replacement, adequate weeks of leave and public administration,” she said.

Fay also argues that lawmakers shouldn’t buy into a “scarcity narrative” that pits paid leave and child care against one another. Like the other advocates lobbying for paid leave this session — including Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility — she said she would be advocating for ambitious action on both policies.

But child care’s top cheerleaders at the Statehouse are not taking the same approach.

Aly Richards, the CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, a well-funded single-issue advocacy group that has become the de facto voice for the child care sector, said the organization will continue to be “focused like a laser on delivering high-quality, affordable child care for Vermont.”

The overhaul contemplated by child care advocates and lawmakers is a “historic, sectoral transformation,” she said, one that will be “massive in scope and scale” if done right, and Let’s Grow Kids can’t afford to take its eyes off the ball.

“We all believe that people — especially working families — have these needs and they should be met. My goodness,” Richards said. “But I think we're just being pragmatic as a movement about getting something done that is realistic, that is ready to go, that has a huge force of support.”

Many Democratic lawmakers, particularly in the House, believe that child care and paid leave are not at odds, but instead inextricably linked. Underlining that point was a legislative summit on Thursday, hosted by Democratic Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, with panels on both child care and paid leave. Krowinski has cited both policies as priorities for 2023

“I don't look at them as being competing,” said Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury, the vice chair of the House Human Services Committee. “I really look at them as being complementary towards a state where all families are supported.”

A small, informal group of four House and Senate lawmakers, including Wood, have been at work ahead of the session drafting the outlines of a child care bill. Members said that for now, they’ve set aside a discussion of paid leave as they wait for Krowinski and Baruth to settle on a joint strategy for the two policies.

One member of the group, Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, who chairs the chamber’s Health and Welfare Committee, said the debate is a “tough one.” She noted that paid leave and child care are not the only big ticket items before the Legislature this year, but she hoped that the General Assembly might broker a creative solution.

“It really becomes a political conversation,” Lyons said. “Because we’d like to do everything, but the resources we have may not allow us to do that. So that's where we are.”

Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, who is also working on the child care bill, thinks Vermont can and should do both. But the call is leadership’s to make, Hardy said, and “above our pay grade, frankly.”

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: lduffort@vtdigger.org

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