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Vt. Senate Hears Arguments on Paid Leave Bill

Thursday, January 21, 2016
Montpelier — Business owners are split over the fast-tracked bill that aims to give more Vermont workers paid personal time off.

Depending on whom you ask, the bill is either business-friendly and lets sick workers stay home on occasion or a measure that would reward employees in their early 20s who skip work because they’re hungover.

The business owners who offered those competing visions spoke Tuesday morning before the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs. The panel is scheduled to take testimony through today on the bill, which has moved over to the Senate since the House passed it in April.

The legislation would grant most full- and part-time employees three to five days of paid time off to deal with illness or certain other family 

As the debate unfolds, a sharp divide has formed between traditional business groups that oppose it — such as the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce — and others, such as the Main Street Alliance and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

There’s also a divide among members of the committee. Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, continues to question how the bill would add to what many businesses call a cumulative burden coming from state labor laws. Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said most witnesses the panel hears from already comply with the proposed law.

“When we get a bill that has something to do with making a worker’s life easier, we hear a lot of businesses who come in and talk about, just generally, that Montpelier is making their life hard,” Baruth said.

“And (they say) since you made our life hard last year, you can’t do anything this year to make a worker’s life easier,” he said. “And I don’t believe that.”

Impact on Businesses

Under the proposed law, businesses of all sizes would be required to offer paid leave each year to their full- and part-time employees. They would offer up to three full days off (24 work hours) during the first two years the law is in effect and five days (or 40 hours) each year thereafter.

Employers could impose a waiting period to use that time off. The employer could make a worker wait until 1,400 hours worked or one year, whichever is shortest. That means part-timers would likely have to wait a year to use the time off, and full-time workers would likely wait nine months.

Under the law, employers would not be obligated to let workers accumulate more than the legally required number of days in a given year.

People could use the time to stay home sick; to take care of a sick child or other family member; to take care of a child whose school is closed, such as for a snow day; or to address life issues surrounding domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

Several categories of employees are exempt from the law, including nonunion state workers, seasonal workers, substitute teachers and certain home health workers. Businesses offering more generous time off would not have to increase the amount, although all businesses could be sued for retaliation if they refuse to allow someone to use the mandated time off.

John Dubie, owner of Pearl Street Beverage in Burlington, said he opposes the bill because he has trouble finding employees, especially full-time employees, and many of his workers between ages 20 and 25 call in sick when they’re not sick.

“Christmas Eve last year, I had three employees call out sick,” Dubie said. “As it turns out, only one of them was legitimately sick. One was too hungover to come into work. The other, as she admitted to other employees, was not sick at all. She just didn’t want to work Christmas Eve.”

Baruth told Dubie he could require an employee who calls in sick to produce a doctor’s note to justify the time off. Dubie said he doesn’t have time “to play policeman to find out if there are legitimate reasons or not.”

“This legislation has the potential to be very costly to my business, especially when you raise the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour (in 2018),” Dubie said. He said all his employees expect to make more than minimum wage.

Caleb Magoon, owner of Power Play Sports in Morrisville and a handful of other retail sports stores, spoke for Main Street Alliance. Magoon said he opposed raising the minimum wage in 2013 but now says the paid sick leave bill is “business friendly.”

“I grew up with a single mom, and it was always challenging (for her) when we were sick to find someone to take us for that day because she was not able to take that day off,” Magoon said.

He said the proposed law would help low-income people, especially minimum wage workers. He also said the probationary period — the nine months to one year workers must wait before using accrued time off — is generous.

“If you need more than six months to determine whether you’re going to keep an employee, I think you might be doing something wrong,” Magoon said.

What Senators Say

Mullin, the committee chairman, said in an interview it is problematic that exempt state workers wouldn’t be promised paid leave. He said the Economic Development Committee secretary who handles agendas and scheduling has worked for the committee for five years and wouldn’t be guaranteed time off under the bill.

Mullin said the writers of the bill chose “not to take on the political lift” of making ski areas and construction companies provide leave for temporary workers. At the same time, store owners would be required to give leave to high school students, he said.

“Basically they’ve figured out the path of least resistance,” Mullin said. “I don’t think a lot of people are going to benefit by this bill, but I’m keeping an open mind, and I think that a bill could be crafted that could probably get broad bipartisan 

Baruth said every witness who testified Tuesday offers enough paid leave that they wouldn’t have to offer more if the law passes. He said the committee has not heard from a single business owner who does not provide paid leave.

“If these people were coming forward and all of them offered no paid time, I think they would make a stronger case,” he said. “I think implicitly they’re making our case, which is that even witnesses that are against the bill are in 

Baruth pointed out that employment in Vermont is at will — meaning that, with a few exceptions, an employer can fire someone on the spot for any reason.

“To me that’s a kind of extreme control that employers continue to enjoy in Vermont,” Baruth said. “This just says I have a minimal right if my mother is sick and I have to take care of her.”

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