Grant will help study paid family leave

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Commission on Women has received a $174,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to study the implementation of paid family and medical leave in Vermont.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau announced a total of $1.55 million in grants to research and analyze how paid leave programs can be developed and implemented across the country. The Vermont Commission on Women, an independent non-partisan state commission dedicated to advancing rights and opportunities for women in Vermont, will utilize the grant to explore how paid family and medical leave can work in Vermont, according to Executive Director Cary Brown.

Cary Brown

Cary Brown

“It’s really a collection of smaller projects that are part of an overall feasibility study,” she said. “We will be issuing a number of contracts with various individuals and organizations in order to conduct different parts of this.”

Brown said the commission is looking to explore potential administrative structures for providing paid leave in Vermont, as well both public and private funding options. She said the commission also hopes to explore programs that are employee paid as well as ones that would include both employees and employers.

“The legislation that’s moving through the legislature right now is paid by the employers,” she said.

Vermont’s Parental Leave Law currently covers employers with 10 or more workers who work an average of 30 hours per week over a full year. The state’s Family Leave Law covers employers with 15 or more workers who average at least 30 hours per week over a year.

Workers are entitled to up to 12 unpaid weeks of leave within a 12-month period under the law. Parental leave is available during pregnancy or after childbirth, or within a year following the initial placement of a child that is 16 or younger with the worker for the purpose of adoption. Family Leave is available when a worker has a serious illness or when a worker’s child, stepchild, ward, foster child, party to a civil union, parent, spouse or parent of the worker’s spouse has a serious illness.

Workers are also entitled to short-term family leave of up to four hours in any 30-day period of unpaid leave. Short-term family leave can be used to participate in preschool or school activities, accompany a child, spouse or parent to medical and dental appointments or other professional services appointment related to their care or well-being, or to respond to a medical emergency.

The Obama administration has made expanding family and medical leave a priority and has pushed for a State Paid Leave Fund at the Department of Labor to provide grants to help cover start-up costs for states that choose to launch paid leave programs. The administration has said many workers cannot afford to utilize unpaid time off because of the loss of income.

“The United States is one of the few countries on Earth without national paid leave. Fortunately, we have seen remarkable progress outside of Washington, where innovative state and local officials are designing paid-leave policies that work for their citizens,” labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in a statement. “These studies will help further our understanding of the issue and design programs that work for our economy. We must expand paid family and medical leave, for the good of our families and the strength of our economy.”

Thomas Perez

Thomas Perez

Brown said the commission will be studying the need for paid leave for both men and women.

“That will be in every model that we look at, the assumption that this applies to both men and women. There may be different needs,” she said. “We’ll be looking at how it effects employees. How they are using it or what the need is.”

Additionally, the commission wants to know the impact on the business community, according to Brown.

“We’ll also be looking at public opinion, getting a sense of what people think of it in the business community and the general public,” she said.

Paid family and medical leave has not gained as much legislative momentum as paid sick leave in Vermont. Proponents of requiring employers to provide their workers with paid sick days won their biggest victory to date during the last legislative session when the House passed a bill that attempted to strike a compromise between businesses and advocates.

The House bill, which could still be taken up by the Senate when the second half of the biennium begins in January, would require a minimum of three days per year of paid sick leave in the first two years. After two years the bill requires at least five days. The House bill mandates that part-time workers be eligible, but seasonal and temporary workers would be exempt.

Implementing mandated paid sick leave in Vermont faces significant opposition in the Senate, including Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor. Campbell declined to take up the bill last session, despite pressure from the Obama administration to do so. The president urged state legislators to pass paid leave legislation in his State of the Union address, and an administration official called Campbell directly to discuss the prospects in Vermont.

But Campbell said there was too little time left in the session, and said lawmakers still needed to ensure that the state’s small businesses would be able to absorb any new mandate.

Brown said paid sick days and paid family and medical leave are “certainly connected,” but said the two are moving forward independently of each other.

“They are inextricably linked. It’s hard to talk about one without talking about the other,” she said. “I think the paid sick days legislation is moving forward with its own momentum.”

A focus on paid sick days during the 2016 legislative session is not likely to detract from efforts to study and implement paid family leave, according to Brown.

“From a practical standpoint, it’s not feasible to implement them all at the same time,” she said.

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