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Vt. Law Targets Wage Gap

White River Junction — A Vermont law meant to facilitate flexible working arrangements for employees took effect Wednesday.

The legislation requires business owners to consider employee requests for alternative work schedules, job sharing and working from home. It was crafted to help close the gender wage gap and improve the ability of employees to balance work and family obligations.

Julio Thompson, the state’s assistant attorney general and director of the Attorney General Office’s Civil Rights Unit, will be responsible for enforcing the law.

“It allows for a legally protected conversation,” Thompson said. “Employees can’t face demotion or adverse treatment because they ask.”

Flexible work arrangements are just one part of Act 31, which also includes increased protection for pregnant and nursing women and reinforces previous equal pay laws. The rest of the law went into effect earlier in 2013.

The idea for the bill emerged from a gathering of federal and state organizations in June 2012. The state Attorney General’s Office hosted a conference at the University of Vermont, inviting the federal Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to engage in an investigation and discussion of the state’s gender wage gap.

According to an April 2013 survey by the Washington-based National Partnership for Women & Families, women in Vermont make about 87 cents for every dollar paid to men. The national average is 77 cents.

State Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, who co-sponsored the bill, said women face challenges adhering to traditional gender roles at home while maintaining their “earning potential over time.”

“It’s not just child-raising,” Thompson said. “Increasingly, families in Vermont are dealing with older parents that they need to take care of.”

Buxton also alluded to a Republican colleague in the House who argued last year that gender equity had been achieved. His argument, she said, “shows that equal pay doesn’t necessarily mean that there is an underlying bias against women. The issue we’re tackling is the larger one — how women can achieve economic security.”

By the end of the 2012 conference, Thompson recalled, the ball was rolling. “People who attended the conference were interested in addressing the problem in Vermont,” he said.

Over the next several months, the Vermont Commission on Women, the Human Rights Commission, the Vermont Department of Labor, along with state legislators and nonprofit groups, met to generate ideas and craft a proposal.

Act 31 passed in the House, 115-22, in May, and was unanimously approved by the Senate. It included amendments strengthening the state’s 2002 Equal Pay Act and a 2005 law allowing employees to disclose their own earnings without fear of retaliation. The new law also permits women to request time and space for breast-feeding in the workplace and increases worker protections against retaliation by employers.

To hear supporters, the law has few, if any, drawbacks.

It requires employers to discuss and consider flex-time requests at least twice a year, but doesn’t dictate which must be granted, according to the Vermont Commission on Women. It also protects employees who seek such arrangements from retaliation or discrimination.

“I think that over the long term we expect to see an increased number of these arrangements and increased worker retention, especially women,” Thompson said.

Buxton agreed, saying 40 percent of mothers bring home the majority of their family’s income. “The flexibility in scheduling allows people to take on those family responsibilities while still remaining in workforce,” she said.

The law will be a success, Buxton said, if the wage gap diminishes, fewer lawsuits are filed claiming wage and gender discrimination, and if businesses offer more creative scheduling options.

“If the only impact in my district is to raise awareness against of the disparity in pay,” Buxton said, “I still think it is a victory.”

In the last few months, the Vermont Commission on Women has released two information packets on Act 31 through the Vermont Chamber of Commerce that detail the rights of employees in case of pregnancy and family or medical leave and explain recourses employees have in case of discrimination.

The Burlington-based Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, a statewide nonprofit business trade organization, backed the bill and has since helped raise awareness of the new policies.

“The part we found that is really important is that if an employee makes that request, there can’t be any retaliation just for asking,” said VBSR Executive Director Andrea Cohen. “Employers just have to respond to requests and engage in that conversation. There are many legitimate reasons for saying no and they’re completely entitled to that.”

Michele Small, administrator of the New Hampshire Department of Labor’s inspection division, said she was unaware of any similar provision in New Hampshire law.

In negotiations with employees, Cohen said, businesses still have the freedom to accommodate employee needs while maintaining their business model.

“There’s no one size fits all,” she said. “What you can and can’t do in a retail environment is very different from a high-tech IT environment. Every business has to look at its operations and figure out what would work, and the law allows for that.”

And in most cases, she said, current practices already fulfill the law’s requirements.

King Arthur Flour was one of the businesses that testified before the Vermont Legislature about the possibilities of other work arrangements. Cindy Osgood, of Ascutney, a human resource generalist at the Norwich-based business, has benefitted from King Arthur Flour’s flexibility. Before the birth of her son in 2006, she approached her supervisor and asked to return from maternity leave with reduced hours. King Arthur Flour agreed, even though Osgood had been employed by the company for less than a year.

Since then, she has worked 32 hours a week, with Wednesdays off.

“It worked out very smoothly,” she said. “It opens up a great work-life balance. For my situation, I knew it would have been very rough to be working full time.”

Thompson also predicted success stories.

“The lesson that we’ve learned so far is that a flexible work arrangement is good business,” Thompson said. “Employees are happy. It keeps people motivated and loyal. What we’re expecting is that people will have the common-sense recognition that this works for everyone.”

Katie Jickling can be reached at katiejickling@gmail.com.