By Kate Robinson, VTDigger.org
The state Senate on Wednesday, Feb. 4, approved a new mandate requiring all businesses in Vermont to offer sick leave benefits to employees.
The legislation will now go back to the House, where lawmakers may concur or amend the Senate version. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he would sign paid sick leave legislation.
Under the Senate bill, companies would be required to give workers three days off for sick leave for the first two years of the law and then five days in year three. Businesses may require a waiting period for the benefit of up to a year, and employees accrue an hour of sick time for every 52 hours worked during that period.
The legislation exempts temporary and seasonal workers, employees under the age of 18 and part-time employees who work fewer than 18 hours per week and fewer than 20 weeks a year.
The legislation features a one-year grace period for new businesses and a one-year delay in implementation for businesses that have five or fewer employees who work 30 hours or more per week.
In the hourlong debate on the proposal, there were several attempts to delay or weaken the bill on the floor of the Senate.
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, offered an amendment to exempt all businesses with five employees or fewer. The motion failed in a 15 to 14 roll call vote.
The amendment from Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, providing for a one-year delay for those businesses, had better luck. It passed unanimously.
Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, who has a small agricultural business, said he doesn’t yet offer paid leave but supports the benefit. He spoke to the idea of “competitive fairness” among Vermont businesses in taking on this new expense.
In supporting paid leave, he said he wants to avoid a race to the bottom among Vermont businesses, adding that the cost is estimated at $80 per day per qualifying employee, or $240 per year. (With a one-year waiting period, the first employees who will be able to use accrued paid time will do so in 2018.)
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, defended the bill as “an effort to address legitimate concerns.” She said committee members heard testimony from businesses that said morale improved when there was a paid leave policy that granted relief to someone who could not afford to stay out sick and lose a day’s pay.
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, reminded his colleagues that the best information showed that an exemption for small companies, as proposed by Campion, would leave out a third of the 60,000 Vermont workers who do not have paid sick leave.
Businesses that already have an equal or better benefits package are free to offer shorter waiting periods, as many do. They decide the terms of their benefits package. H.187 covers only employers who don’t have an existing plan.
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said he was pleased by the compromises the Senate made to ensure passage.
“This bill is an important step in providing workers with necessary paid time off while balancing the needs and concerns of the employer community,” Campbell said. “With passage of this bill, Vermont workers will no longer have to weigh the benefits of treating their illness with the costs of losing pay or putting their jobs on the line.”