Despite President's Push For Paid Sick Days, Proponents Face Tough Fight In Montpelier

Jan 27, 2015

Last year, Vermont lawmakers heeded President Obama’s call to boost the minimum wage. But it’s unclear whether the president’s recent push for paid sick days will spur action in the Statehouse in 2015.

Gov. Peter Shumlin last year embraced the president's mission as his own. And Shumlin’s advocacy in the Statehouse helped deliver a modest victory for the state’s lowest-wage workers who will, under the law, be making a minimum of $10.50 per hour by 2018.

Last week, Obama used his State of the Union address to urge states to require that employers provide their workers with paid sick leave. But Vermont’s Democratic governor appears more ambivalent about the president’s latest labor-rights initiative.

“I think the difficulty we’re having here is that this is a new idea – it’s not like the minimum wage, where we’ve been doing it for a long time,” Shumlin said during a news conference Tuesday. “There are good arguments on both sides about whether (the state) should play a role in making this happen or not.”

Proponents of paid sick leave mounted an unsuccessful legislative campaign in 2014. But they’re back this year with a revised proposal designed to mitigate opposition from the business community. While the bill still would require employers to provide at least seven days of paid sick time annually to fulltime workers, it would delay onset of the legislation, to give companies time to prepare.

Business owners like Jen Kimmich, co-founder of The Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury, are traveling to Montpelier to urge lawmakers to get behind the bill.

"I really think it's important for everyone to really think about what it means to make the minimum wage, and really calculate that in your head, and put yourselves in the shoes of a single parent. You can't even make ends meet. What do you do when you're sick." - Jen Kimmich, owner, The Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury

  “And I really think it’s important for everyone to really think about what it means to make the minimum wage, and really calculate that in your head, and put yourselves in the shoes of a single parent. You can’t even make ends meet. What do you do when you sick?” Kimmich told members of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Tuesday. “These are people that have no vacation time.”

Shumlin and legislators are weighing testimony like Kimmich’s against pushback from other business owners, who  say they can’t afford another mandate from Montpelier.

“We truly believe that employers need the flexibility to tailor benefits to their employees. The pot, the amount of funds available for benefits and pay, is only so big, it’s a percent of your gross revenue. And when that’s exceeded, the business is in jeopardy,” Marc Sherman, owner of Stowe Mercantile, and vice-chairman of the public policy for the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, told the Senate panel.

"We truly believe that employers need the flexibility to tailor benefits to their employees. The pot, the amount of funds available for benefits and pay, is only so big, it's a percent of your gross revenue. And when that's exceeded, the business is in jeopardy." - Marc Sherman, owner of Stowe Mercantile

Sherman says imposing the sick leave mandate would require many employers to reduce other elements of their employees compensation packages. And he says the proposal comes alongside several other fees, taxes and other corporate mandates that would conspire to depress the business climate in Vermont.

Sherman says the increase in the minimum wage has put upward pressure on the entire wage scale in the retail industry, and he says revenue proposals like the 0.7 percent payroll tax Shumlin wants to use to for increased Medicaid funding would also come out of businesses bottom line.

It’s an argument that resonates with key lawmakers like Rutland Sen. Kevin Mullin, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development. Mullin says that after passing the minimum wage hike last year, he told businesses that lawmakers would try to leave them alone in 2015.

“And we’re right back at it this year with the 0.7 percent payroll tax, paid sick leave, and a number of other proposals,” Mullin said Tuesday.

Cathy Lamberton, executive vice-president of Associated General Contractors, told the Senate committee that businesses in the construction sector rely on nearly impeccable attendance records from their employees. And if unscrupulous employees use their free day off to nurse a hangover, for instance, Lamberton says the mandate could result in severe losses for businesses that operate during a short construction season.

“They get paid on Thursday night, a group of them go out, and Friday morning all of a sudden you have a skeleton crew on a regular basis, you have a problem with completing the job on time,” Lamberton said. “And because of what some people call the brown-bag flu, or some of the other abuses that could occur, you are putting contractors at risk for being penalized for not getting the job done on time.”

Most Vermont businesses already provide paid leave, including employers like Sherman, who gives his workers five paid days off per year. According to the bill’s supporters, employers who already provide at least seven days of paid time off –  vacation, personal days or other forms of leave – wouldn’t have to change their compensation program in order to comply with the new mandate.

Lindsay DesLauriers, head of the Main Street Alliance, a new business group pushing the paid sick days legislation, says the bill is needed to protect the one in five Vermont workers that get no paid time off. DesLauriers says benefits from the proposal aren’t limited to the people who would directly benefit by getting paid sick days.

“For those of us with this benefit, it means that our children are exposed to illness in school because our classmates parents’ don’t have paid time off,” DesLauriers says.

Supporters of the paid leave say the bill is needed to rectify gender imbalance in the workplace, where women make up a disproportionate share of of the low-wage workforce.

“Forty-nine percent of women report that they’ve lost pay or promotions or have struggled to keep their jobs because of the need to care for sick children. Only 28 percent of men have said the same thing,” Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, told lawmakers Tuesday.

Auburn Watersong with the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence told legislators that inability to take paid sick leave can have a particularly detrimental impact on survivors of domestic violence.

“(Paid sick leave) supports employers in addressing the problem of domestic and sexual violence directly by permitting employees to take a few days to seek services and safety,” Watersong said.

Both the House and Senate are considering paid sick leave bills this session, though legislation has yet to be introduced in the House, where lead sponsors are tailoring the legislation to address the concerns of specific lawmakers before beginning committee debate.