Senate panel zeroes in on paid sick leave bill

MONTPELIER — A Senate panel is zeroing in on a paid sick leave bill that amends the version passed by the House last year to make it more palatable for the business community.

The Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs is expected to vote on the amended legislation Thursday morning after clarifying the expense it will have on the state as an employer. The bill is expected to easily clear the committee, according to Chairman Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland.

The Senate Committee on on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs works to finalize a paid sick leave bill. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

The Senate Committee on on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs works to finalize a paid sick leave bill. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

The committee delayed a vote on Wednesday until the state Department of Human Resources could detail how much its bill would cost the state. The Senate bill looks to exempt the state from the mandate, except for temporary hourly workers. Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, said she was uncomfortable offering an exemption to the state for those workers because they do not receive other time-off benefits.

“To pass a law that we are excusing ourselves from just doesn’t sit right,” Cummings said. “Why are we excluding us if it’s a negligible cost and very few of those.”

Human Resources Commissioner Maribeth Spellman told the committee Wednesday the cost would be negligible, but did not have an exact figure. Depending on the amount it could cost the state, the bill may also be referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

According to Spellman, all classified state employees receive various types of leave that are “significantly more generous” than the benefits mandated in the bill. However, there are 16 categories of workers who are not classified workers. But only the temporary hourly workers would be negatively impacted, she said.

“It was something as an organization that you wouldn’t even know you were paying, frankly,” Spellman told the committee.

The House-passed bill, which narrowly cleared the chamber last year on a 76-66 vote, would allow workers to earn up to three days of paid time during the first two years of employment before increasing to five days. Those benefits would be available to workers after they put in 1,400 hours of work or after a year’s time with a company, whichever comes first.

Under the bill, workers would be able to take paid time off that they have accrued for sickness, to care for a sick person in their care or to care for children when there is a snow day at school. Temporary and seasonal workers are exempt from the mandate.

The Senate version includes several changes. It defines an employee eligible for paid leave as a worker who averages no less than 18 hours of work per week. It also includes the state worker exemption, except for the temporary hourly workers. It strikes an exemption for foreign guest workers under a federal work visa.

Also included in the Senate version:

— An exclusion for individuals working on a per diem, occasional or intermittent basis.
—A waiting period for the benefit of up to one year, during which time employees will accrue sick time but will not be permitted to use it until the waiting time is completed.
— Allowing earned time to be carried over to the next year, but an employee cannot use any more sick time than what is allowed by an employer.
— A exemption for new employers that allows them to refrain from providing earned time until one year after the first employee is hired.

Also included in the Senate bill is a provision requiring out-of-state employers bidding on state contracts to include in all bids the cost of providing the earned time.

“We’re just trying to make a level playing field for our contractors to get as many bids as possible,” Mullin said.

Representatives of the business community, which has opposed legislative efforts to mandate paid sick leave, said Wednesday they are pleased the Senate version does take into consideration some of their concerns.

“While the Vermont Chamber maintains that employers should have the flexibility to decide their benefits and paid leave policies based on their specific needs, we appreciate the Committee’s willingness to work with the business community to make the mandate less impactful,” Kendal Melvin, government affairs specialist for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said.

Melvin noted that many businesses are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.

“As employers continue to emerge from a recession, they are burdened with the cumulative impact of a recently raised minimum wage, increases in government imposed fees, increases in unemployment insurance payments, rising property taxes among other pressures,” she said.

Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, said “paid sick leave is a valuable benefit and we urge employers to provide whenever possible.” However, he said the organization is disappointed the committee did not include an exemption for employers with few employees.

“We do appreciate some of the work the committee has done with the bill in order to makes its implementation a little easier. We are disappointed that there is not a small business exemption like there is in Connecticut and Massachusetts,” Harrison said.

Disclosure: Vermont Press Bureau Chief Neal Goswami is the partner of Vermont Retail and Grocers Association Vice President Erin Sigrist.

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