Paid sick leave mandate heads to Gov. Shumlin’s desk

MONTPELIER — The House on Wednesday passed the Senate’s amended version of a paid sick leave bill a year after passing its own, sending it to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s desk to be signed into law — a dream that many on the left side of the political spectrum have waited years to achieve.

The bill, H.187, had a relatively easy path to passage Wednesday after five separate amendments were withdrawn. All five amendments — including one from Rep. Alyson Eastman, an independent from Orwell, to include an exemption for small businesses — had already been rejected by the House General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee.

Rep. Oliver Olsen (Courtesy photo)

Rep. Oliver Olsen (Courtesy photo)

Reps. Oliver Olsen, an independent from Londonderry, and Paul Dame, a Republican from Essex, also withdrew amendments, noting they were unlikely to pass.

But Olsen tried a procedural move to send the bill back to committee after peppering Chairwoman Helen Head, D-South Burlington, with questions about the measure. She was unable to answer some, but said the Department of Labor had broad authority to interpret and implement the law, prompting Olsen’s motion.

“We do not pass legislation that we cannot interpret ourselves and leave it to someone else,” Olsen said. “I’m speechless. If we are going to pass legislation we need to know what we intend to do.”

His motion failed by an 87 to 58 margin. The House went on to pass the bill on an 81 to 64 roll call vote.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, all Democrats, issued a joint statement hailing the bill’s passage.

“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,” they said. “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.”

Advocates, who have argued the Senate version makes some concessions for small businesses, say the legislation is necessary to extend paid sick leave to about 60,000 working Vermonters who currently do not have access to the benefit. Head, speaking on the House floor Wednesday, said the bill “represents a modest and universal solution that meets the needs of working Vermonters.”

But opponents said it will have a negative impact on small businesses, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat. Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, said the legislation “goes way beyond” providing paid time off if an employee is sick or if an employee needs to care for a sick child.

“I can understand both of those requirements. This bill requires that an employer offer time off if you need to take your mother-in-law for a routine medical appointment,” she said.

The bill makes employers “responsible not just for the health of their employees… but for the care of employees’ extended family,” Browning said.

“It’s not clear to me why the business owner should be responsible for paid time off if a sister is involved in an unfortunate domestic violence situation. This bill goes too far,” she said.

Rep. Cynthia Browning

Rep. Cynthia Browning

Waterbury Democratic Rep. Tom Stevens pushed back, saying supporting the bill does not mean lawmakers do not care about small businesses.

“We’ve heard accusation that we don’t really care about small businesses, which, as an individual legislator, I’m pretty offended by,” he said. “We have 60,000 people in the state of Vermont, some of them who work in this very building and serve our food, who don’t have the opportunity to take a day off if they’re coughing or if their nose is running without knowing that they won’t lose salary.”

“This is not an attack on small business any more than not giving a paid sick day to someone who has to take their sick mother for chemo is an attack on that employee,” Stevens added.

The bill will allow employees who work, on average, more than 18 hours a week for at least 20 weeks a year, to accrue up to three paid sick days a year in 2017 and 2018. Workers could accrue up to five paid sick days per year beginning in 2019. Businesses with five or fewer employers are not subject to the mandate in the first year — a provision added to the bill through an amendment offered by Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden.

Also included in the bill:

— An exclusion for individuals working on a per diem, occasional or intermittent basis.
—A waiting period for the benefit of up to one year, during which time employees will accrue sick time but will not be permitted to use it until the waiting time is completed.
— Allowing earned time to be carried over to the next year, but an employee cannot use any more sick time than what is allowed by an employer.
— An exemption for new employers that allows them to refrain from providing earned time until one year after the first employee is hired.
— A requirement that out-of-state employers bidding on state contracts include in all bids the cost of providing the earned time.

The legislation survived reconsideration in the Senate after Sen. William Doyle, R-Washington, moved to reconsider his vote on an amendment to exempt small businesses with five or fewer employees from mandated paid sick leave. Although Doyle changed his vote, so, too, did Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, negating Doyle’s changed vote.

Scott Coriell, spokesman for the governor, said it was unclear Wednesday when Shumlin will sign the bill into law and make Vermont the fifth state to mandate paid sick leave.

Annie Accettella, the Paid Sick Days Campaign director for Voices for Vermont’s Children, issued a statement celebrating the bill’s passage.

“The Paid Sick Days campaign is pleased that the House, once again, chose to stand with working families in Vermont. We want to thank all of the House members who supported the bill and especially House Speaker Shap Smith and his leadership team for guiding the bill through this process,” she said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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