Paid Family Leave And Higher Minimum Wage To Compete For Political Oxygen In Montpelier

May 1, 2017

The Vermont House is expected to pass legislation this week that would create a statewide paid family and medical leave program. But the bill will face a number of hurdles to passage when the Senate takes up the proposal next year, and might see its progress hampered by a corresponding push to raise the minimum wage.

The paid family and medical leave bill expected to pass the House this week is a far cry from the one advocates started with. For one, the legislation would guarantee up to six weeks of paid leave, rather than the 12 weeks called for in the original version of the bill.  

It replaces only 80 percent of lost wages, up to a cap of $1,000 a week — advocates had hoped for 100 percent wage replacement. And the House version of the proposal also would not provide paid leave to people who have to take a leave of absence due to a personal illness, or an injury they suffer themselves; rather, the benefit would apply only to care for a newborn or an ailing family member.

But it’s a compromise that has earned the bill majority support in the Vermont House of Representatives. And Lindsay DesLauriers from Main Street Alliance, one of the groups leading the charge for the bill, says she’s grateful for lawmakers’ work.

“We would have preferred to see a 12-week benefit,” DesLauriers says. “But we would say that six weeks is better than no weeks. This is a great start.”

Whether it’s a starting point or not, however, depends entirely on what the Senate decides to do with the bill when it returns for the second half of the legislative biennium in 2018. And the proposal will have to contend with some high-profile detractors.

“I don’t think everyone should be forced to pay,” says Grand Isle County Sen. Dick Mazza, one of the longest-serving and more influential members of the 30-person Senate.

The legislation calls for a mandatory payroll deduction for every employee in Vermont. The money would go into a state-run insurance pool, which would then be used to replace wages for people who take a leave of absence to care for a newborn, or tend to an ailing family member.

"We don't want to leave next biennium without passing a piece of legislation that makes life better for working Vermonters. That is loud and clear what we heard from the caucus." — Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint

And while the House version of the bill doesn’t require businesses to chip in financially, Mazza, a Democrat, says it will still hurt the economic climate.

“Because we’re perceived as anti-business in this state, I would hate to force one more burden on employers who are trying to do the right thing,” Mazza says.

But the bill also has some high-profile supporters, including Rutland County Sen. Kevin Mullin, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development.

“I’ve actually advocated for the last couple of years that Vermont should have a plan similar to what New York does,” Mullin says.

Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed his state’s version of the statewide paid family and medical leave bill into law. It offers 50 percent wage replacement for up to eight weeks in starting in 2018, then ramps up to 67 percent of wages for up to 12 weeks by 2021.

Mullin has operated a business in New York for nearly three decades. He says he doesn’t think the legislation will be at all burdensome to him or other employers. In fact, he says it’s a relief to know workers will be financially secure if they do have to leave for the birth of a newborn.

“I think that there is a way, but it’s all going to depend on the costs involved, how luxurious the benefit is,” Mullin says.

It may also depend on which piece of pro-worker legislation the Senate decides to invest its political capital in next year.

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint says many Democratic senators are also interested in raising the minimum wage.

“We’re looking at strategically which of those is going to be more likely that we can get more members of the caucus behind,” Balint says.

"Because we're perceived as anti-business in this state, I would hate to force one more burden on employers who are trying to do the right thing." — Sen. Dick Mazza

Balint says it doesn’t necessarily have to be an either/or proposition. But she says it may well be, given the political realities in Montpelier.

“Bottom line, we don’t want to leave next biennium without passing a piece of legislation that makes life better for working Vermonters,” Balint says. “That is loud and clear what we heard from the caucus.”

Balint says the caucus is waiting for a fiscal analysis on how the adoption of a $15 minimum wage would impact benefits eligibility for lower-income Vermonters. Once it has those numbers, Balint says the Senate will decide which of the two proposals — paid leave or increasing the minimum wage — it wants to focus its energy on.

But more political challenges await whatever proposal the House and Senate ultimately agree on. Gov. Phil Scott says he will oppose any new legislative mandates on Vermont businesses.