Bill would guarantee 12 weeks paid family and medical leave to all Vermont workers

  • Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, left, confers with Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. (VtDigger — Glenn Russell) VtDigger — Glenn Russell

Published: 1/12/2023 10:37:46 PM
Modified: 1/12/2023 10:35:00 PM

Democrats in the Vermont House of Representatives are hoping the third time will be the charm.

After twice — in 2018 and 2020 — failing to override Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes on paid family and medical leave bills, Democrats — fortified by a historic supermajority in the House — are preparing to try again.

Lawmakers are circulating a bill, which is expected to be introduced next week, that would guarantee 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to all Vermont workers, including part-time and seasonal employees. The bill would provide paid time off in the event of the birth or adoption of a child, personal medical leave and leave for people experiencing domestic violence or whose family member is called into active duty.

The program would be financed with a 0.58% payroll tax, split between the employer and employee, according to a draft of the bill, and $20 million in start-up funds from the state.

The proposal for a mandatory paid leave program goes further than a voluntary program announced by Scott last month. The governor has signaled that he would oppose any effort to fund a more expansive program through a payroll tax.

The bill’s lead sponsors are Reps. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, the newly minted chair of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee; Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, the vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee; and Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, who helms the chamber’s General and Housing Committee, the panel that would first take possession of the legislation.

Kornheiser said Vermont had made “really important strides in improving family well-being” in recent years, citing last year’s tax reforms and housing investments. But she said there’s more work to be done.

“I think it’s really important, especially when we look at the lessons learned from the pandemic, that we fulfill this promise to Vermonters around making life work for people and making it work for families,” Kornheiser said.

Under the proposal, workers making at or below the average weekly wage in Vermont would receive a 100% wage replacement during their leave, according to Kornheiser, and the very lowest-paid workers would not need to pay in order to receive benefits. The state treasurer’s office would administer the social insurance program.

Employers would be able to opt out of contributing to the state-managed system if they provided benefits through a private insurer that were as robust as the leave mandated by legislation. But Kornheiser said she’d heard from employers who are eager to ditch their insurers for a more cost-effective public option.

For Michelle Fay, executive director of Voices for Vermont’s Children and the lead lobbyist for a coalition of organizations advocating for paid leave, the legislation hits the nail on the head. It has “all the essential elements of a strong and equitable paid family and medical leave bill,” she said.

Those elements, according to Fay, include public administration, an inclusive definition of family, comprehensive benefits, and wage replacement high enough to make it accessible to those who need help the most.

A paid leave program is already in the works for Vermont. Scott announced last month that the state had found a private insurer to administer a plan for state employees that all businesses and workers will eventually be allowed to opt in to. That plan would offer a minimum of six weeks off, with a 60% wage replacement.

The United States remains the world’s only industrialized country that doesn’t require paid family leave at the federal level, although 11 states have enacted mandatory programs that are funded by payroll taxes. A smaller number of Republican-led states, including New Hampshire, are exploring or enacting voluntary programs like Scott’s as an alternative to an all-in model.

“The Governor continues to believe the voluntary plan the state is already moving forward with is the right approach that would achieve a shared goal of providing access to paid family and medical leave, without imposing a mandatory payroll tax on already overtaxed Vermonters,” Jason Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary, wrote in an email.

But Democrats and advocates have dismissed the governor’s plan, arguing that only a mandatory program can ensure universal coverage, and that low levels of wage reimbursement would make it effectively useless for the poorest Vermonters.

“If you’re living in a paycheck-to-paycheck situation because of low wages, receiving 60 or 70% of your wages is almost as good as zero, because you just won’t be able to afford to take that leave,” Fay said.

While the bill has yet to formally start its journey through the Statehouse, its prospects in the Vermont Senate already appear much brighter. Though Senate leadership had appeared chilly to the idea of resurrecting a paid leave proposal at the same time as lawmakers are planning to tackle a costly expansion in child care, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, on Tuesday struck a more receptive tone.

While paid family leave and child care have been priorities for years, “I’ve really been holding on to the idea that we shouldn’t be doing them together,” he said — but that just means passing one family-friendly reform in the first year of the two-year legislative biennium, and the other in the second. He is “agnostic,” he said, about which should come first.

“I’m also enduringly interested in being on one page with the House and strengthening our approach in that way. So if they’re sending paid leave first, then we will take that up first,” he said. “But we are going to be looking to finalize our agenda in terms of what we think makes the most sense in terms of the sequencing in the next week or two.”

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