House advances paid sick leave bill

MONTPELIER — A bill to provide workers with paid sick time cleared the House Wednesday after majority Democrats defeated several attempts by Republicans to delay action on the measure.

After hours of debate, the chamber voted 76 to 66 in favor of providing earned sick time to most employees in Vermont. The bill would allow workers to earn a maximum of three days of paid time during the first two years of employment before increasing to five days. Those benefits would be available to workers after they put in 1,400 hours of work or after a year’s time with a company, whichever comes first.

Under the legislation, workers would be able to take paid time off that they have accrued for sickness, to care for a sick person in their care or even to care for children when there is a snow day at school.

Temporary and seasonal workers are exempt from the new mandate.

Rep. Helen Head

Rep. Helen Head

Rep. Helen Head, chairwoman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, told her colleagues the bill would impact an estimated 60,000 workers in Vermont who do not currently have the option of earning paid time off. Similar measures have been introduced in the past but until Wednesday had been unable to clear either the House or Senate.

“This bill has been a decade in the making. The need is clear,” Head said.

Wednesday’s floor vote came after the bill was revived by scaling back its contents. Bill sponsor Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, said he agreed to sponsor a bill that would be easier for businesses to adhere to. But even his original bill was scaled back by adding in longer waiting periods and limiting the amount of earned time that could accumulate.

Toleno said he was adamant about the bill being universal, however — meaning no special exemptions for small businesses. He said there was no logical place to draw such a line.

Rep. Steven Berry, D-Manchester, said he decided to vote for the bill after hearing that many small businesses would already be compliant with the bill’s requirements.

“I’ve come around 180 degrees in my perspective thanks to listening to people … and understanding exactly what it means to be fair in our state,” he said. “It is a standard to which all businesses should seek to aspire. I am very much for this particular bill.”

Rep. Steven Berry

Rep. Steven Berry

Others were firmly opposed.

Rep. Ronald Hubert, R-Milton, who owns a retail business, said between 10 and 12 “mom and pop stores” are closing every year because of state mandates.

“These are stores that can no longer, as a family business, make it anymore,” he said.

Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Florence, said he supports the concept of paid time off “but not by state mandate.” He also called a potential $5,000 for violating the mandate “unconscionable.”

“This bill may be well intended, but unfortunately, places another unfunded mandate on small businesses,” Shaw said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, said businesses should be able to determine which benefits they offer.

“A business should have the right to operate their business as they see fit. They’re the ones with capital at risk,” she said.

Instead of mandating paid sick time, Browning said the state should create some type of insurance program that would allow the cost to businesses to be mitigated.

House Republicans made three motions during the three hour debate to send the bill to various committees for further review. Each motion was defeated. A fourth motion was made by Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, to postpone action for one day until it could be determined how the legislation would impact state highway projects. That, too, was defeated.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin announced last week that he supported the bill. He had resisted efforts to pass similar laws in the past but said the bill passed Wednesday eased his concerns about the impact on businesses.

“Most Vermonters agree that if you’re sick you shouldn’t be faced with the decision to either go to work and put others at risk or miss work, sacrifice your paycheck, and potentially lose your job. Many employers already provide fair earned leave policies. But some do not and that puts many Vermonters in a difficult and unfair situation,” Shumlin said in a statement after Wednesday’s vote. “In the past, I have been skeptical of proposals that did not do enough to recognize the costs and burdens to businesses this legislation might create. This bill addresses those concerns in a balanced and thoughtful way to provide this important benefit to Vermonters.”

Advocates said they will now look to the Senate to pass the bill. That seems unlikely, however, since the bill would first have to make it through the Senate Rules Committee because it did clear the House before the Legislature’s mid-way crossover deadline. The Senate committee is stacked with members who opposed such a law.

Still, Lindsay DesLauriers of the Main Street Alliance, who has lobbied for years for paid sick leave, said she and others will “try everything we can to pass it this year.”

“That would be an incredible turn of events. We see that. We know that. We acknowledge the challenges and we understand them. But, there is momentum around this bill right now. The governor came out for it. The president came out for it. We just had a pretty strong vote in the House,” she said.

The bill is up for final passage in the House on Thursday.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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