Notes from Montpelier: Businesses benefit from paid sick leave

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I'd be willing to bet that we have all experienced a situation where a coworker comes to work sick and several days later the entire workplace is down with it. Another common scenario is that a child, despite being ill, is taken to day care, pre-k, or school and soon everyone in the classroom is sick.

This is most egregious if the employee or parent has an employment benefit package that includes sick days or "combined time off," but there are those of us who do not have that benefit and are faced with losing a day's pay if we don't show up for work. In fact, 60,000 Vermonters are in that predicament and for many of them losing a day's pay might mean the difference between paying a bill, filling the car with gas, buying groceries, or not.

For food workers this benefit is particularly important to the greater public health, not just to coworkers. According to the Center for Disease Control, 65 percent of foodborne illnesses occur because workers handling food go to work ill. For those who live paycheck to paycheck, staying home when ill is very difficult financially and the vast majority of food workers report that they do go to work when sick.

Last year, the House passed what was known and the "Earned Sick Time" or "Healthy Workplaces" bill. The Senate took it up this year and sent back a bill that is somewhat different but something we could ultimately concur with. Some consider this a workers' rights bill – I think it is a good commonsense, public health bill.

The Senate made the bill tougher regarding the requirements to qualify for, accrue, and take advantage of the benefit. What we sent over last year would have required a person to work 1400 hours or one year, whichever came first, before they could take advantage of the benefit. The Senate's bill requires 2080 hours of work or one year, whichever comes first. While the worker may accrue the earned time off at a rate of one hour every 52 hours of work, they may not use that time until they have worked 2080 hours or one year. The bill we sent over to the Senate allowed for accrual at one hour for every 40 hours worked, rather than the 52-hour requirement sent back to us.

A number of exemptions were included: Businesses with five or fewer employees are exempt until 2018. Even after 2018, a newly-opened business has a one-year grace period as it establishes itself and becomes more viable. People who work less than 18 hours per week are considered part-time and are excluded, as are people under the age of 18. Temporary and seasonal employees who work less than 20 weeks per year are also excluded. Contracted workers are not covered by this legislation.

Businesses that already offer paid sick days, vacation days, or "combined time off" that meet the minimum requirements of this bill do not have to offer additional benefits. The earned time off may be used for things other than personal illness. It can be used to take care of a child or other family member who is sick or injured, or for doctor's appointments that provide preventive, therapeutic, diagnostic, or routine health care. It can also be used by someone who has to take necessary safety steps due to domestic violence, stalking, or sexual abuse.

There are limits to the number of days of sick time a worker may earn. For the first two years, employees may earn up to three days or 24 hours of paid time off. Keep in mind that they can't use any of this time off for the first year. In subsequent years, they may earn up to five days or 40 hours of paid time off. If an employee does not use all of their paid time off in a given year, they may roll it over but only earn up to the maximum allowed in the new year. Employees may be asked to make an effort to find a replacement for themselves for any planned absence and to avoid routine health care appointments during work hours, though that can certainly be a challenge. If an employee leaves a job with earned sick time left, the employer is not required to pay for that time in cash.

While the details of the legislation are important, the overarching goal is to achieve healthier Vermont workplaces. The employee who comes to work sick and infects everyone else is affecting the overall productivity of that business. Businesses that already offer paid sick time or "combined time off" see the benefits in employee loyalty and a healthier, happier work environment. Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and the Vermont Main Street Alliance supported the legislation and worked hard to see it succeed. The motion to concur with the Senate passed on a strong 81-64 vote.

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


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