Senate to reconsider small biz exemption for paid sick leave

MONTPELIER — A paid sick leave bill passed by the Senate Wednesday veered off course Thursday after a motion was made to reconsider a failed amendment seeking an exemption for small businesses.

WDoyleSen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington, made the motion Thursday to reconsider his vote on the amendment introduced a day earlier by Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington. The amendment, which failed Wednesday on a 15 to 14 vote, seeks to exempt small employers with five or fewer full-time workers from the paid sick leave mandate.

The Senate, after recessing to consider the matter, voted by voice to reconsider the amendment. A second voice vote postponed that action until Wednesday rather than face immediate consideration. Because Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin was out of state, Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott was serving as acting governor. That required Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell to preside and cast a potential tie-breaking vote in the likely event of an evenly split chamber.

If Doyle votes in favor of the Campion amendment, it could swing the tally in favor of a small business exemption.

Proponents of the bill opposed to the exemption sprang into action Thursday, issuing an urgent plea to supporters to call their senators and urge defeat of the Campion amendment and passage of the original Senate bill.

“The legislative process has many twists and turns, but we remain committed to fighting for the rights that Vermont’s working families deserve. We hope the Senators will stand with us,” said Annie Accettella, campaign manager for the Vermont Paid Sick Days Coalition.

The Senate bill was passed by the full chamber on a 21-8 vote Wednesday, after Campion’s amendment was defeated. The chamber did approve a measure from Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, allowing small employers with five or fewer employees to delay providing the benefit until 2018.

Kris Jolin, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, wasted no time Thursday blasting the Senate for its vote a day earlier and making clear that Campion’s amendment would not make the bill more acceptable.

“We will not tolerate politicians claiming they advocated on small businesses behalf by throwing in a 5 or fewer employee exemption because it still damages a majority of our members,” he said in a statement. “The Senate had the opportunity to stand up for small businesses and vote down this mandate yesterday. Unfortunately, once again, they failed to advocate for our state’s largest employer. Mandating paid leave will not only cost small businesses revenue that they do not have, but this will cost employees jobs that will no longer be available when Mom and Pop stores cannot afford the hard working people that they treasure dearly.”

The House is not likely to agree to a small business exemption, according to Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith. That would trigger a conference committee where House and Senate negotiators would need to agree on a compromise. Smith said the House already “made some tradeoffs with small business” in the bill it passed.

“I think that we feel pretty strongly that our bill was a strong one that made a number of compromises that made it palatable to small businesses,” the speaker said. “We don’t think a small business exemption is necessary.”

Scott Coriell, spokesman for the governor, said Shumlin supports the legislation the Senate passed on Wednesday. He declined to comment one whether the governor supports a small business exemption.

“The governor supports the bill that was passed yesterday and he wants the strongest bill possible that protects the most workers. He’s hopeful that the house and senate can work together to get a bill to his desk quickly,” Coriell said. “We’re going to look at whatever they pass.”

The Senate-approved bill defines an employee eligible for paid leave as a worker who averages no less than 18 hours of work per week. It also includes a state worker exemption, except for 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.
— An exemption for new employers that allows them to refrain from providing earned time until one year after the first employee is hired.
— A requirement that out-of-state employers bidding on state contracts include in all bids the cost of providing the earned time.

The House approved a similar measure last year by a slim margin — 72 to 63. The Senate retained its major provisions, which includes allowing 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.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, a skeptic of the bill last session, helped usher it through the Senate this year.

“This bill is an important step in providing workers with necessary paid time off while balancing the needs and concerns of the employer community. With passage of this bill, Vermont workers will no longer have to weigh the benefits of treating their illness with the costs of losing pay or putting their jobs on the line. I thank the members of the Senate Committee on Economic Development for their hard work on this bill,” he said after it passed Wednesday.

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