MONTPELIER -- For years, the Vermont attorney general joined the state Commission on Women and state Human Rights Commission in telling employers that when workers go on family leave, they continue to build up sick leave and vacation time.
But when the state was in the role of the employer, and faced a complaint from a worker that she was cheated out of nearly 60 hours of accrued leave time while out on maternity leave, its position changed 180 degrees.
Ursula Stanley, a civil engineer who works on bridges for the state Agency of Transportation, returned from a three-month maternity leave in 2007 and was told that she had not built up the nearly 30 hours each of vacation and sick time she thought she had.
The Vermont Supreme Court agreed with the state in a ruling this month, according to court papers that detail the case.
Stanley, 35, said in an interview that time off was important to her. She worked closer than her husband to their new baby’s day care.
"I was going to be the one responding anytime they called," she said.
She said she was led to believe the leave would accrue in part by advice she got during a phone call with the attorney general’s office, and in part by a publication put out by the Governor’s Commission on Women and signed onto both by the attorney general’s office and the Human Rights Commission.
The three agencies joined to write a booklet published in 2001
"While an employee is on parental, family, or short-term family leave, must the employer continue to provide the usual employment benefits? Yes ... During leave, employees earn their vacation and sick leave, and whatever other benefits the employer provides."
That advice remained Friday on the website of the Commission on Women, a week after the state Supreme Court ruled the opposite was true.
"We’re going to have to deal with that, obviously," Wendy Love, the commission’s executive director, said in an interview.
She said she was disappointed with the court’s ruling, but likened the controversy to "angels dancing on the head of a pin. The real issue is that unlike almost every other civilized society in the world we have no ... paid family leave. We really need to re-examine our policies for families."
In 2006, the commission published a chart comparing federal and state laws on family leave. "Do benefits continue during leave?" it asked. In a column headed "Federal law," it said "health insurance only." Under "Vermont law," it said, "all benefits continue."
The attorney general’s office had a link to the chart on its website until after Stanley filed suit, court papers said.
By January of 2011, that had changed.
"At present, the website for the office of the attorney general does not contain a link to the table," wrote Assistant Attorney General Megan Shafritz, chief of the office’s civil division, in a letter to the judge who heard Stanley’s case at the trial court level.
A call to Attorney General William Sorrell was returned by Shafritz, who said she did not believe there was any bad faith on the part of the state in changing its position.
She said many laws are subject to multiple interpretations, and the correct interpretation often isn’t established until a court rules. Shafritz acknowledged the civil rights division of her office had advised previously that paid time off accrues during unpaid leaves. But she said the state Department of Human Resources had never adopted that policy regarding state employees.
For the Stanley case, the attorney general’s office revisited the issue, she said, and concluded that the position of the Department of Human Resources was correct.
"Ultimately the court told us that was the correct interpretation," Shafritz added.
Stanley said she was angry about the switch. "It was fine when nobody called them on it for the state to tell other employers they had to continue benefits, including sick time and vacation time," she said. "It’s a setback for all parents," Stanley added. "It means private companies can now change their policies," and no longer are deemed required to allow workers to accrue paid time off during leaves.
Somers was more blunt:
"The attorney general’s office is talking out of both sides of its mouth and acts as if it has a charmed existence that private employers don’t have," he said. "The state tells you what the law is and then it ignores the law and does it the other way."