Vermont sick leave legislation signed by governor

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MONTPELIER >> Vermont became the fifth state Wednesday to require paid sick leave after Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law a bill that will affect some 60,000 workers.

The signing ceremony in the House chamber was the culmination of a 10-year effort by proponents.

Gov. Peter Shumlin called the legislation historic. President Barack Obama praised the law and prodded Congress to expand it nationwide. Vermont joins California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Oregon as states mandating paid sick leave. In addition, the District of Columbia and more than 20 cities also have mandatory paid sick leave.

Under the legislation, employees who work at least 18 hours a week will accrue three days of paid sick leave starting in 2017. That increases to five days in the third year. Employers with five or fewer employees were given an additional year before they are subject to the new law. Employees can use the leave to care for themselves or a family member.

The law will impact employees, particularly those in lower-paying jobs, that don't already already receive the benefit, including restaurant and day care workers, many of whom attended the bill signing.

"It's still tough to make ends meet at the lower end of the pay scale. If you also have to choose between being sick and losing your job, it's a double hardship," said Shumlin, surrounded by legislators, employers and activists who supported the bill. "This is consistent with Vermonters' values, and it poses a significant public health improvement."

Shumlin said nationwide that 90 percent of restaurant workers report going to work sick and 65 percent of food-borne illnesses can be tied to a sick worker, he said, citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control.

Shumlin said the law would help workers avoid having to "make the tough choice between going to work or losing your job."

The law was the result of several compromises over the years, including an effort by some business owners to work with legislators to make the bill more palatable and then rally support for the law.

"Like many business owners in Vermont, I tend to be a little leery of when Montpelier puts additional burdens on businesses and I'm particularly conscious of legislation that affects our bottom line. Even successful businesses like my own sometimes struggle to make ends meet and we have to balance what we want to do with what we can do," said Caleb Magoon, who owns sporting goods stores in Morrisville and Waterbury, and joined the Main Street Alliance, a group of business owners, to make the bill more business-friendly and improve earlier versions.

Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, a trade organization that represents more progressive companies, also praised the bill, as did the American Federation of Teachers, which represents workers in health care and higher education.

"Businesses that offer paid time off to employees will tell you that this investment pays off," said Dan Barlow, public policy manager at VBSR. "Their employees are healthier, more productive, and more loyal because they know they won't miss a paycheck if they get sick."

Shumlin also praised Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, and Sen. President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, for keeping alive a bill he said almost died several times. The bill passed the Senate this year after high drama, including a vote reversal after the bill originally passed.

Not everyone supported the legislation.

"While we would have preferred not to have a new mandate on employers, we do think the Legislature, in particular the Senate, made some modifications to make it less onerous and to be sensitive to some of the needs of small employers," said Jim Harrison of the Vermont Retail Association.

"It remains to be seen how this will all play out. We think certainly paid sick leave is a valuable benefit and more and more employers are doing everything they can to offer the best benefit package they can for their valued employees," Harrison said in an interview.

Harrison applauded the Senate for exempting employees under 18 years old and those working fewer than 18 hours per week and for giving businesses with five or few employees an additional year to comply.

"Businesses oftentimes feel that Legislatures sometimes want to manage their businesses and if they're providing this benefit plus some, there's certainly some anxiety when the state steps in and says no you have to do it this way," Harrison said.

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, who received a gubernatorial signing pen, said the legislation provided a minimum benefit "at the basic level of humanity in that regard." He said the legislation changed over the years and that it was "doable on the part of business and it's also liveable for the workers."

"It was a long adventure," said Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington. "It all came together this year."

Head added: "I think it was establishing the trust with the business communities and other communities. We have a lot of early childhood educators here because they know when parents don't have the opportunity to stay home, to care for a sick child, that means that child goes to school or daycare," Head said. "This really ripples out to so many sectors, so many people throughout Vemont, much broader than the 60,000 Vermonters who currently have paid sick days."

"It's a huge deal," Head said, particularly lower-wage workers.

"Too many workers face that impossible choice. This law is for the mom who has to decide if her son's fever is too high, that she should take the day off to take care of him at home or whether it's better to keep that paycheck and put him on the bus and hope for the best," said Sharon Block, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor, who attended the signing. "It's for fast-food workers who know they shouldn't go to work when they're sick and risk getting their customers and their co-workers sick but can't afford to lose their job."

President Barack Obama issued a statement after the signing and said he hoped Congress would pass a national paid sick leave bill.

"So I'm once again calling on Congress to help us catch up with other advanced nations and provide this basic security to all Americans. Until Congress acts, I urge other states to follow Vermont's lead. And I'll continue to do everything I can as president to support working families – because it's the right thing to do to give everyone a fair shot to get ahead," Obama said.

Support for the bill was tri-partisan. Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee, who said he favored the bill after hearing compelling stories of employees going to work ill.

Mark Johnson is a senior editor and reporter for VTDigger. He can be contacted at mjohnson@vtdigger.org. Follow Mark on Twitter @markjohnsonvtd.


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