New Year, Familiar Pitch: Should VT. Mandate Paid Sick Leave? Gov. Shumlin Now Says He's Eager to Broker a Compromise

VT News channel 5

MONTPELIER, Vt. —For the third consecutive year, lawmakers at the Statehouse are considering a proposal to require that virtually every job in Vermont come with sick leave benefits – or some other form of paid time off. 

Previous efforts have died before reaching a vote on either the House or Senate floors.

This year’s prospects looked no better.

Sen. John Campbell — the Windsor Democrat and the chamber’s most powerful member — said Wednesday he believes the Vermont economy remains too fragile to impose a costly mandate on employers.

“Let’s wait until the recovery takes hold,” Campbell said.

This week, the Senate Committee on Economic Development opened hearings on a new version of the legislation.

S.15 would ensure employees could accrue one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked, earning up to 56 hours annually. Employees could carry over unused leave time to the following year.

“I think it sends the wrong message to small businesses in this state,” lobbyist Shawn Shouldice told the panel Wednesday.

Shouldice represents the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Sheila Reed, with Vermont Voices for Children, couldn’t disagree more.

“We have 60,000 workers in the state of Vermont who have absolutely no paid leave  at all,” Reed said. “So unfortunately that group of employers needs to be told by the Legislature that they need to provide this basic workplace benefit.”

S.15 does address one employer concern — including a waiting period before a new worker could utilize sick leave.

Employees would have to worked at least 500 hours — the equivalent of roughly three months of full-time work — before being eligible for paid sick leave.

But the benefit would extend to part-timers, a critical issue for advocacy groups.

“Look, a lot of people work multiple part-time jobs to make up a full-time income,” said Lindsay DesLauriers, of Main Street Alliance, a business group that supports the bill. “So it’s very important we include part-time workers since they’re far less likely than full-time workers to have any paid time off benefits whatsoever.”

Rutland Sen. Kevin Mullin, the committee chairman, says he can not support a bill imposing a significant new administrative burden on Vermont employers — all of whom would now have to prove compliance with the law.

And there’s also the matter of how much the additional benefit might cost taxpayers — state government employs a lot of part-time workers

Jay Clarke, co-owner of G.Housen, a Brattleboro-based beverage distributor, says his company offers paid leave to his workers. He told the committee the law will hurt very small employers and start-ups.

“Our concern is with government interference in the free market – it becomes more restrictive  for businesses to operate in a manner that works best for them,” Clarke said. “We feel it’s the employee’s choice to find work that suits their needs.”

The bill may be well-intentioned, he said, but is a bad idea.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin has yet to publicly back any version of the bill but this week signaled his interest in striking a deal both sides could accept.

“I feel there’s got to be some compromise we could all find together,” Shumlin said Tuesday.

He did not spell out what elements might be included, but House Speaker Shap Smith took notice of Shumlin’s interest in brokering a deal.

Rep. Chris Pearson of Burlington said a group of House lawmakers is expected to introduce a new version of the sick leave bill soon. Pearson described it as “middle ground.”

Mullin, meantime, doubts S.15 will go too far.

“As currently drafted I won’t support it in any way,” he said. “But I think it could if there are modifications to it.”

The senator, a small business owner himself, then added, “I don’t think the two sides are that far apart. We’ll see where this goes.”