Notes from Montpelier: Balancing the needs of working Vermonters with small business

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I would like to report that spring is getting to Montpelier but aside from the tulips reluctantly popping their leaves up in the shelter of the State House, it's hard to see. Typically, the weather warms, the front lawn greens up almost overnight, and Frisbee players appear like clockwork. This year is, perhaps, the longest post-winter season I have witnessed. A few intrepid hacky sack players have been seen in between days of snow and ice. On Thursday, as if to add insult to injury, it spitted tiny snowballs as we participated in a State House evacuation drill.

After a winter of colds and flu that swept through the State House seemingly continuously, the bill that took center stage this week seemed very apropos. H.187, a bill related to absence from work for health care and safety, otherwise known as the Earned Sick Days or "Healthy Workplaces" Bill, took many hours to debate on the Floor of the House.

I think we have all experienced (and maybe done it ourselves) a situation where someone has come to work sick and infected everyone else. Or brought a child to daycare who is under the weather and made the whole room of children sick. In some cases this is because the worker/parent doesn't have paid time off and lives paycheck to paycheck – a missed workday might mean the difference between buying groceries, paying a bill, or affording a tank of gas for the car.

For 10 years there have been conversations in the State House about providing workers with earned, paid sick days. Last year's attempt did not garner enough support, in part, because it was considered too generous. Subsequently, advocates worked together with small businesses to create legislation that would be more acceptable while establishing a minimum standard of earned time off. The resulting proposal is included in H.187.

Under the bill, a new employee has to work 1,400 hours or one year, whichever comes first, before they can take advantage of the benefit. The 1,400-hour requirement means that a worker has to work full-time for more than eight months before accessing their earned, paid sick days. For every 40 hours worked, an employee will accrue one hour of paid sick time. A worker will be able to earn and use up to three days, or 24 hours, per year for the first two years and then five days per year in succeeding years. This time off may be used for personal illness, the illness of a child or other family member, or other personal reasons, such as having to appear in court or for "safe" time in the case of domestic abuse.

The process to determine what would be included in the proposal was thorough and inclusive. Last summer, the Main Street Alliance of Vermont worked statewide with small business owners by means of a survey and direct conversations to understand what might be acceptable to them. Governor Peter Shumlin then requested that former governor, Madeleine Kunin, and the Main Street Alliance co-host a two-day Business Task Force on Earned Leave, which was attended by an equal number of businesses that were in favor of and opposed to the issue. Attendees included Associated Industries of Vermont, Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont Commission on Women, the Vermont Retail and Grocers' Association, and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. The 1,400 hour, lengthy waiting period and the phased in approach (three days earned the first two years and five days thereafter) were direct results of the feedback heard at the Business Task Force meeting and through other outreach efforts.

Employers who already offer combined-time off that qualifies will be exempt from these provisions. Short-term, seasonal, and temporary workers are excluded from the provisions of this legislation; however, permanent part-time employees are not. We are aware that many Vermonters work at several part-time jobs to make ends meet and they, too, should be included under this legislation.

One of the fears expressed by small businesses was that employees would take advantage of the situation if they could access the benefit immediately. In response to this concern, the waiting period was established, which reflects the common business practice of requiring a probationary period for newly hired employees. While most probationary periods are three months long, the bill requires a minimum of an eight-month waiting period before the benefit can be accessed. Another compromise was that the accrual rate was reduced from one hour every 30 hours to one hour every 40 hours. For some business owners, there was a philosophical disagreement regarding the State's role in establishing new workplace standards or regulations and they were not able to support the bill even when their concerns had been addressed.

Local businesses that formally endorse the "Healthy Workplaces", or Earned Sick Time, bill include Chroma Technologies, Coyote Moon, and Windham Antique Center in Bellows Falls; Amy's Bakery Arts Café, Everyone's Books, Galanes Vermont Shop, Happy Hands, In the Moment Records, and Mystery on Main in Brattleboro; Taylor Farm in Londonderry; and Black River Produce in Springfield. To see a complete list of businesses that support the legislation, go to http://mainstreetalliance.org/vermont/earned-leave-coalitions.

The goal of the bill is to balance the legitimate needs of working Vermonters with those of small businesses. Thanks to the hard work and compromise on the part of all of the stakeholders, a reasonable and thoughtful bill was crafted that will, over time, improve health and productivity in our workplaces.

Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, welcomes emails at cpartridge@leg.state.vt.us.


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