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Vt. Lawmakers Hear Need for Paid Sick Days

Montpelier — There was uneasy laughter in a Vermont House committee room last week as Statehouse cafeteria worker Laura Tyrell said she had come to work ill that day because she gets no paid sick leave. She told the assembled lawmakers that she had made some of their lunches.

Sitting in the corner of the room was committee assistant Ron Wild, who was doing much of the grunt work for the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. Wild, who works for the Legislative Council for the roughly five months lawmakers are in session each year, also gets no paid sick leave.

As lawmakers prepare to debate a bill that would require employers to provide paid sick leave to their workers, the issue has been hitting close to home. In fact, the state of Vermont appears to be one of the state’s largest employers of people who don’t get that benefit.

Tyrell actually works for The Abbey Group, a private food-service company that staffs the lawmakers’ lunch room under contract with the state. She told the committee that all employees, whether working for a public or private employer, should be able to take a paid day off when they’re ill.

“If you guys knew today that I was sick, how (many) people wouldn’t have come and got any food from me?” she asked. “If I had a sign saying ‘Laura’s sick today,’ we would have lost a lot of business. But I had to be there to make money. I don’t feel like people should have to be put in that situation.”

A message left for David Underwood, co-owner of The Abbey Group, wasn’t returned.

Lawmakers have heard from business groups and some individual employers that the new mandate would be unaffordable and would hurt Vermont’s economic recovery. The only other state with a similar requirement is Connecticut.

Kate Duffy, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Human Resources, said the state typically has 600 to 800 temporary employees on its payroll out of a total workforce of about 7,800. Those workers don’t accrue the sick time, vacation time and other benefits that full-time state workers get.

The most recent workforce report from Duffy’s department, for the fiscal year that ended in June, showed the state’s temporary workforce with a wider fluctuation: from just below 500 in January to more than 1,000 in July. During the warmer months, many temporary workers staff the state parks, Duffy explained.

Bringing the state into compliance with a proposed new law saying a worker would accrue an hour of sick time for every 30 worked, up to 56, or seven eight-hour days per year would cost the state $300,000 to $400,000, legislative researchers have estimated. That’s why, after it cleared the House General committee this past week, it was sent to the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Committee member Rep. Peter Fagan, R-Rutland, said he wasn’t sure when Appropriations would get to the measure — or how it would be paid in an unusually tight budget year. If the House passes the measure, it would still have to go to the Senate.

Gov. Peter Shumlin said last week that he supported paid sick leave in principle, but “the devil is in the details.”

The Vermont State Employees’ Association, the state workers’ union, has strongly supported the paid sick leave requirement.

“A lot of VSEA members say many of the temps at their worksites are coming to work sick because they do not have paid sick days. All this does is get more employees sick — full-time and temporary — and the public, if they happen to come in contact with the sick temp. More employees out sick translates to a drop in productivity and a decline in services,” union spokesman Doug Gibson said in an email.