Michelle Fay Commentary: It's Time to do the Right Thing for Working Vermonters
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michelle Fay, who is director of the Vermont Paid Sick Days Campaign and a former state representative from St. Johnsbury.
The first paid sick leave bill was introduced in Vermont 10 years ago. Since then, 20 states and cities have passed laws creating workplace standards around earned sick leave, and shown that businesses do not suffer negative impacts. In fact, the hospitality and retail sector in Connecticut grew following the implementation of their paid sick leave law in 2006, and San Francisco saw more robust economic growth than neighboring areas without a paid leave standard.
One in five working Vermonters does not have access to paid sick leave – that’s roughly 60,000 of our neighbors, mostly working in low-wage jobs. The lack of stability this causes takes a toll on our economy, on our families, and on public health and safety. Without access to paid sick leave, working families are presented with impossible choices: to go to work sick, exposing others to the illness and prolonging their own recovery; to send a sick child to school or child care with similar impact; or to go without pay. For some, even taking an unpaid day off due to illness results in a negative mark on their record.
The voices of people impacted by the lack of earned sick leave have largely been missing from the conversation, for obvious reasons. They can’t get time off to testify, and are fearful of retaliation from their employers if they speak out. But in the month I’ve served as the director of the Paid Sick Days Campaign I’ve heard many accounts of the impact on working Vermonters who don’t have access to paid sick days. They are concentrated in low-wage jobs with high public contact: food service, retail, and home health. These hard-working Vermonters depend on their legislators to be their voice, and to take a stand for the people who have been hardest hit by the slow recovery and stagnating wage growth.
Children are also voiceless in this issue. They have no control over where their parents work, but are sent to school sick, left home alone, or cared for by an older sibling that is pulled out of school when their parents can’t afford to take time to care for them. When working Vermonters can’t afford to take the time they need to care for their health and safety or the well-being of a family member, there is a cost: avoidable hospitalizations and emergency department visits, reduced incomes and even job loss that increases dependency on government programs. In other words, when businesses don’t offer paid sick leave they privatize the benefit of paying lower wages but socialize the increased health care and social safety net costs.
The Vermont Paid Sick Days Coalition invites businesses to play a leadership role in stabilizing our working families and our communities. We’re delighted that Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and many individual employers have joined the campaign. They are modeling the sort of big-picture thinking that will lead Vermont to shared prosperity.
We ask our legislators to champion the cause of Vermont’s working families and pass H.187. Given the difficult choices with this year’s budget, a bill that allows working Vermonters to be responsible caregivers, productive employees, and earn steady income ought to be a top priority. Helping Vermonters maintain dignified employment is a benefit to us all.