Vermont Business Magazine Two weeks to the day that the Senate initially passed the paid sick leave bill (Healthy Workplaces bill H187) and a week after an unusual re-visit of it by the Senate, the House passed the bill today (81-64) and will send it on to the governor for his signature into law. The bill was amended slightly by the Senate to reduce the impact of the act on very small businesses. Small businesses with five or fewer employees will not be required to offer paid sick days until 2018. An amendment to exempt small businesses entirely failed. H187 passed the House last year on a vote of 72-63. The House fought off several amendments to help very small businesses or expand who is covered.
Governor Peter Shumlin, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, and House Speaker Shap Smith issued the following statement after the House passed paid sick days legislation.
"This legislation puts an end to an era where some Vermonters were faced with the decision of going to work sick or potentially losing their job. Many Vermont businesses do the right thing by offering paid sick days to their employees. This important right will now be extended to all Vermonters. That's the right thing to do for workers, businesses, and public health. We're proud that Vermont will become the fifth state to guarantee this important protection to its citizens."
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- Businesses with 5 or fewer employees are exempt until 2018.
- The bill is phased in over several years. Employees are allowed to earn a maximum of three days off (24 hours) for the first two years and that number increases to five days (40 hours) in the third year of implementation.
- Qualifying employees earn one hour of paid time off for every 52 hours they work.
- There is a waiting period for new hires of 2080 hours worked or one year - whichever comes first. Employees earn time during this period, but cannot use it.
- Employees are allowed to use this earned time off to care for themselves or a family member when sick or injured, to seek routine medical treatment, or to seek help and services in situations of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or stalking.
- The bill does not require employers to provide "paid sick days" over their current paid time off policies (vacation, combined time off, etc) so long as their plan meets the minimum requirements in the bill.
The Senate bill tightened who must be covered. For instance, a worker has to be at least 18, work at least 18 hours a week and more than 20 weeks in a year, and not be a contracted worker (which the state is also now using stricter rules for employers to include more previously considered "contracted" as now employees). The language gives employers more leeway in what is considered "sick time" compensation, but it does cover temporary workers if they meet the other provisions.
In his State of the State address on January 7, Shumlin explained his support: "Vermonters who are sick should not have to choose between going to work or losing their job. This isn't just about fairness for employees; it's about protecting all of us. Nationwide, almost 90 percent of food workers report that they go to work sick, and according to the CDC, 65 percent of foodborne illnesses result from the handling of food by someone who's sick. I'm encouraged that the Senate is committed to getting the good bill the House passed last year to my desk."
About 60,000 Vermont workers are not currently covered by a paid sick leave provision at work.
Annie Accettella, campaign director at Voices for Vermont's Children, said of the victory, "The Paid Sick Days campaign is pleased that the House, once again, chose to stand with working families in Vermont. We want to thank all of the House members who supported the bill and especially House Speaker Shap Smith and his leadership team for guiding the bill through this process."
"I'm really excited that this bill passed the House because a guaranteed minimum number of paid sick days means that families like mine won't have to struggle so much. I'm grateful that our legislators listened to working families on this issue, and I believe that this legislation will help provide more stability for Vermont's families and make our communities stronger and healthier," stated Meg Cline, a worker in Burlington, when she heard the news of the bill's passage.
Meanwhile, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) "watched in horror" as mandatory paid leave came one step closer to the front doors of small businesses throughout the state.
“Our members are having a difficult time watching as mandatory paid leave gets closer and closer to their door steps. In spite of repeatedly being directly warned by small business owners themselves as well as advocacy groups like ours, some lawmakers just don’t seem to grasp the damage that they are inflicting on the small business sector,” said NFIB Vermont representative, Kris Jolin. “Increasing mandates on the most vulnerable employer in Vermont, small business, is not going to turn out well for our economy as a whole.”
Paid leave legislation, he said, has been tossed back and forth between the House and Senate with various amendments being considered along the way. A handful of lawmakers boisterously expressed their opposition today, however the final passage occurred nonetheless. While the bill heads to the governor for signature, he said small business owners are scrambling to discern the impact that this anti-business bill will have on their ability to continue to employ Vermonters.
“Our members gave up a long time ago on having legislation that would actually improve things, but is it too much to ask that legislators at least stop talking about making them worse? This bill, with or without the amendments, sends a clear signal to small business owners that Vermont’s law makers would rather interfere with the day to day operation of their businesses than try and improve the economy,” Jolin said.
The vote occurred Wednesday after the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee considered amendments from various representatives seeking to weaken the bill on Tuesday. The committee voted to find each of the five amendments unfavorable. The committee also voted to recommend agreeing with the Senate version of the bill. During debate on the House floor, all of the amendments were withdrawn, thus keeping the Senate version of the bill intact.
Committee Chair Helen Head (D-South Burlington) explained, "After carefully reviewing amendments from our colleagues as well as the Senate proposal, we decided to concur with the Senate's version. A strong majority of the committee believes this is a good bill that will provide thousands of working Vermonters with access to much needed paid sick leave."
On the floor, the vote was 81-64 in favor of concurrence with the Senate.
"Offering paid sick leave to our employees has been a great investment in our employees that our business has benefited from," said Eliza Cain, co-owner of Red Hen Bakery and long time advocate for the paid sick days bill. "It's great to see Vermont making the same investment in all our people."
Senators made a number of business-friendly changes to the bill that was passed by the Vermont House last year, including exempting part-time workers (defined as working less than 18 hours per week) and high school students (defined as workers under the age of 18). The committee also added in a one-year exemption from the requirement for newly-opened businesses.
Chroma Technology Corp, an employee-owned high tech manufacturer of optical coatings in Bellows Falls, is now offering paid parental leave to mothers and fathers expecting birth babies, the non-biological same sex parent and parents of all genders who adopt children. Each parent who works at Chroma is now eligible for 12 weeks paid leave.
“We’ve always provided paid leave for birth mothers,” said Angela Earle Gray, Chroma’s Human Resources Director. “We’ve finally included the other kinds of parents. They all need to have time with new children.”
The program provides 60 percent of salary for employees with up to five full years’ tenure and 80 percent for employees with five or more years. There is no interruption of benefits during the leave period.
“We proud of what we’ve done but it’s just a start,” said Paul Millman president of Chroma. “It’s not as generous as is available in most European states. That will come when the US recognizes the importance, to both the family and society, of parenting during the child’s early years, and makes paid leave part of public policy. That’s a hard climb in this country.”