Vermont has become the fifth state in the nation to enact legislation that requires businesses to provide their workers with paid sick leave.
Gov. Peter Shumlin praised the measure at a bill-signing ceremony Wednesday morning in the Statehouse, where dozens of lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates gathered in the House chamber to celebrate passage of a bill that took several years to wend its way through the Legislature.
Sharon Block, the principal deputy assistant secretary of policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, was on hand for the bill signing. Block says the measure gets to the heart of what President Barack Obama refers to as “middle-class economics.”
“This really shouldn’t be a complicated issue,” Block says. “Nobody should have to choose between taking care of the families they love and paychecks that they need.”
Later that afternoon, President Barack Obama issued a written statement praising Shumlin and the rest of the state for their efforts on behalf of the bill.
“This action means thousands of families will no longer have to choose between losing income and taking care of a sick child,” Obama said. “It’s a choice no one should have to make. “
Obama also renewed his call to Congress to enact similar provisions in federal law.
The Vermont bill takes effect in 2017, and will require companies to provide three days of paid sick leave in the first year of the law, and five days annually thereafter. While temporary workers, and employees who work less than 18 hours a week, aren’t covered by the mandate analysts expect the law will mean paid sick for about 60,000 workers in Vermont that don’t currently have the benefit.
The legislation comes at a cost: Analysts for the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office estimate the mandate will cost businesses as much as $11 million in added labor costs annually when fully instituted.
Many House and Senate Republicans say the measure imposes an undue burden on Vermont businesses and will harm the economy. Some business groups lobbied hard against the law until the very end.
Jim Harrison, executive director of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, told Vermont Public Radio in February that the added labor costs can’t simply be absorbed as a cost of doing business.
“What does that mean? Where does that come from? Does that mean that consumers pay higher prices? Does that mean some employment is cut back? Does that mean hours are reduced?” Harrison said. “Those are all scenarios that have very real potential, and it disproportionately impacts the smallest businesses in the states.”
It was support from the business community, however, that ultimately got the bill over the legislative finish line. And it wasn’t until the bill was amended – it originally called for seven days of paid sick leave annually – that lawmakers, and the state’s Democratic governor, issued a more full-throated endorsement of the proposal.
Caleb Magoon, a Hyde Park resident who owns two retail sporting good stores, was among the small businesspeople that argued in favor of the bill. Magoon says he opposed earlier iterations of the legislation that he says “lacked the controls and protections for businesses.”
“Like many businesses owners in Vermont, I tend to be a little leery of when Montpelier puts additional burdens on business,” Magoon said at the bill-signing ceremony. “And I’m particularly conscious of legislation that affects our bottom line.”
Magoon says changes made to the bill based on input from the business community — including a probationary period that means workers will have to be employed for a period of time before they become eligible for paid sick leave — turned him into a vocal supporter.
And Magoon says the legislation means businesses that “do the right thing” by providing paid sick leave won’t suffer a competitive disadvantage to businesses that do not.