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Vt. Senate OKs Paid Sick Leave

Friday, February 05, 2016
Montpelier — The state Senate on Wednesday approved a new mandate requiring all businesses in Vermont to offer sick leave benefits to employees.

The legislation will now go back to the House, where lawmakers may concur or amend the Senate version. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he would sign paid sick leave legislation.

Under the Senate bill, companies must give workers three days off for sick leave for the first two years of the law and then five days in year three. Businesses may require a waiting period for the benefit of up to a year, and employees accrue an hour of sick time for every 52 hours worked during that period.

The legislation exempts temporary and seasonal workers, employees under the age of 18 and part-time employees who work fewer than 18 hours per week and fewer than 20 weeks a year.

The legislation features a one-year grace period for new businesses and a one-year delay in implementation for businesses that have five or fewer employees who work 30 hours or more per week.

In the hourlong debate on the proposal, there were several attempts to delay or weaken the bill on the floor of the Senate.

Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, offered an amendment to exempt all businesses with five employees or fewer. The motion failed in a 15 to 14 roll call vote.

The amendment from Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, providing for a one-year delay for those businesses, had better luck. It passed unanimously.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, marshaling a number of constituents’ objections to illustrate his point, said the bill is still “a sweeping decision” that “paints with a big brush.” But his amendment to delay implementation until 2018 drew little support and was voted down, 20 to 8.

Among his examples was Nick’s Gas & Go with six employees. The owner had told him, he said, that all “new fee bills” are a struggle and that mandating paid sick leave would take choice away from her employees. She said they had told her they preferred higher pay to having the sick leave benefit.

“An engineering firm down the road,” Benning reported, consisted of parents and their daughter. “They don’t see why they are to be treated like a large corporation.” Benning also cited “a lifelong Democrat who runs Paul’s Whistle Stop” as pleading for relief from the $80 per day his one paid employee would cost.

In appealing to his fellow senators to reject the Benning amendment and others that might weaken the bill, Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, who has a small agricultural business, said he doesn’t yet offer paid leave but supports the benefit. He spoke to the idea of “competitive fairness” among Vermont businesses in taking on this new expense.

In supporting paid leave, he said he wants to avoid a race to the bottom among Vermont businesses, adding that the cost is estimated at $80 per day per qualifying employee, or $240 per year. (With a one-year waiting period, the first employees who will be able to use accrued paid time would do so in 2018.)

Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, defended the bill as “an effort to address legitimate concerns.” She said committee members heard testimony from businesses that said morale improved when there was a paid leave policy that granted relief to someone who could not afford to stay out sick and lose a day’s pay.

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, reminded his colleagues that the best information showed that an exemption for small companies, as proposed by Campion, would leave out a third of the 60,000 Vermont workers who do not have paid sick leave.

Businesses that already have an equal or better benefits package are free to offer shorter waiting periods, as many do. They decide the terms of their benefits package. The bill covers only employers who don’t have an existing plan.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell said he was pleased by the compromises the Senate made to ensure passage.

“This bill is an important step in providing workers with necessary paid time off while balancing the needs and concerns of the employer community,” Campbell said. “With passage of this bill, Vermont workers will no longer have to weigh the benefits of treating their illness with the costs of losing pay or putting their jobs on the line.”

Lindsay DesLauriers, state director of Main Street Alliance, an advocacy group that lobbied for the mandate, lauded the Senate.

After the vote, she underscored that the Senate version of the bill, with exemptions for those under 18, for a number of categories of part-time workers and for a one-year optional waiting period, has compromises that respond to calls from other business organizations such as the Vermont Chamber of Commerce to lower the “burden on business.”

“Employees have given up quite a lot,” DesLauriers said.

Senate President and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott was less than enthusiastic about the details of the bill, which he said “is not perfect” and could hurt small companies.

“I would have preferred to see the additional exemptions for small businesses offered by amendment today in the Senate,” Scott said. “The timing of this legislation is unfortunate for Vermont’s small businesses who are struggling in light of the numerous mandates the Legislature has imposed on our businesses over the last few years, one example being mandating enrollment in Vermont Health Connect despite the fact that Vermont is the only state in the nation which enacted this for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. These types of mandates further Vermont’s reputation as being unfriendly to the challenges of building a small business.”

Kris Jolin, a Capitol Connections lobbyist representing the National Federation of Independent Business, panned the paid sick leave bill.

“This will no doubt come at a high cost to small businesses and will certainly have a serious effect on jobs and the economy in our state,” Jolin said. “We implore members of the House to take into account the detrimental impact that imposing such a mandate will have on job creation and the difficulty that the small business sector will have in absorbing the price of this legislation.”

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