Paid Family Leave Legislation May Hinge On Vermont's Gubernatorial Race

Oct 21, 2016

Many new parents in Vermont face a tough choice: take a leave of absence from work to stay home with their newborns, and forego a paycheck, or head back to work shortly after the baby arrives. 

A coalition of groups is now trying to put an end to that dilemma by passing legislation that would create paid family leave policies at all Vermont businesses. But the revenues needed to pay for the plan are making it a controversial proposal.

In 2013, on warm fall day outside a bakery in central Vermont, former Gov. Madeleine Kunin joined a crowd of advocates to launch a legislative push for mandated paid sick leave. 

It took two and a half years, but the coalition succeeded. 

Earlier this month, at a family center in central Vermont, Kunin reunited with many of the advocates behind the paid sick leave law. This time, Kunin says, they have a different goal in mind.

“Eighty percent of families have both mother and father in the workplace. That means, who takes care of the newborn?” Kunin says

Nationwide, only about 10 percent of workers have access to paid family leave from an employer. Kunin and other advocates want to make Vermont the fifth state to institute a mandatory paid family leave program.

“We got paid sick days in the last legislative session, and we were told that couldn’t be done, so we’re not going to listen to those who say it can’t be done,” Kunin says.

Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, says the gender pay gap in Vermont persists in part because of the disproportionate roles women play in running the household.

“Women simply bear a greater share of the responsibility for taking care of family members than men do, and so paid family leave is one way to try to address that,” Brown says.

The proposal calls for a statewide insurance program that would allow men and women to take extended paid leave not just for the arrival of a newborn, but to recover from a serious illness, or to tend to a sick family member. 

Brown says the marketplace hasn’t been able to deliver this benefit on its own. 

“We know that it’s also one that’s too expensive for a lot of people, on both ends of the equation,” Brown says.

And so a coalition that includes AARP, the Vermont-NEA and some socially progressive business alliances – Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and Main Street Alliance – are pushing for a statewide insurance program that would create a “statewide family and medical leave insurance program.”

There’s one big sticking point: Such a program would likely require a payroll deduction, taken from both workers and the businesses that employ them. 

“A payroll tax would be a show-stopper for me,” says Republican candidate for governor Phil Scott. “I don’t believe that employers can afford that at this point in time.”

Mandated paid family leave has become an issue in the governor’s race. Democrat Sue Minter says she supports the proposal. Scott says Vermont’s businesses cannot withstand yet another tax.

“And imposing another mandate on employers is just going to be of great concern to many of us,” Scott says.

Scott says he supports voluntary paid family leave policies at businesses, like the one in place at his own construction company. Scott says employees have in the past had to leave work for extended periods to deal with illness or family issues.

“And we continue to pay them, because we feel that we’re taking care of our employees, but we’re able to do that voluntarily, and within our means,” Scott says.

But former Gov. Kunin says leaving the policy to the will of the employer does nothing for the employees who would benefit most from the family leave benefits.

“Middle-wage earners and low-wage earners don’t have the clout to negotiate, so it’s an economic issue,” Kunin says.

The paid-family leave coalition says it will try to pass legislation in the upcoming legislative session. Their success or defeat might hinge on who wins the gubernatorial election on Nov. 8.