MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin won’t say yet whether he’ll support passage of a paid sick days bill that could become a cornerstone of the progressive agenda in Montpelier next year.
The legislation aims to supply full-time workers with at least seven days of paid sick time annually by imposing a new mandate on Vermont employers. Passage of the bill has become a major priority for organized labor groups, who will be joined in the push by a broad coalition that includes advocates for women and children.
But the Democratic governor has yet to signal his support for legislation that even proponents say could increase gross payroll costs by as much as 2.5 percent at companies that don’t already provide the benefit.
“I support Vermonters having peace of mind when they’re ill,” Shumlin said last week. “As you know, the devil is in the details.”
The legislation is shaping up to be one of the major battles of the 2014 legislative session as business interests, including the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Businesses, prepare to mount a concerted opposition.
Betsy Bishop, executive director of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, has said the employer mandate seeks to impose a “one-size-fits-all” solution to a problem best addressed by individual companies.
Proponents of the bill say Bishop’s preferred course won’t remedy the hardships faced by the approximately 60,000 Vermont workers who don’t get paid when they’re too ill to come to work. James Haslam, executive director of the Vermont Workers Center, said Monday that the lack of paid sick time affects not only the workers that risk termination if they get sick, but the employees exposed to ill colleagues who can’t afford to miss a day’s pay.
“We come at it from a workers’ rights standpoint, but we’re working with other people who are very passionate about it as a women’s right’s issue, or as a public health issue,” Haslam said. “This is a huge burden that often falls to mothers and caregivers.”
House Speaker Shap Smith Monday offered his strongest public expression of support yet for the legislation, saying that while he hadn’t had time “to carefully review the legislation,” he thinks it is “appropriate for employees to have the opportunity to take sick time without consequence.”
Asked whether that means he supports a mandate on employers to offer paid sick time, Smith said it did.
The bill has 35 sponsors in the House. Smith said he won’t know until after the House Democratic caucus next month whether the legislation will earn priority status in his chamber.
“But it wouldn’t surprise me if this is one that came to the House floor,” Smith said.
Asked whether he supports a paid sick time mandate on Vermont employers, Shumlin was more circumspect.
“I think it’s a conversation that we should have,” Shumlin said. “Most employers do already.
“The ones that don’t tend to be the lower paying, bigger enterprises, so I think it’s worth looking into. What I’m saying is that I think it’s a really important conversation for us and the Legislature to have.”
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