MONTPELIER — Small business owners gathered at the State House this week to urge lawmakers to require paid sick days in Vermont, arguing the rule is actually good for business.
A bill under consideration in the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee would require employers to allow all full- and part-time employees to accrue paid sick time based on hours worked.
The committee has heard from some business owners that the new mandate would be an economic burden. But a group of small business owners and leaders argued the opposite Thursday.
“From an employer side I see that the value is very high, monetarily as well as physically and culturally and socially,” said Beth Sachs, president of Vermont Energy Investment Corp. “We want our employees to be healthy at work and productive and contribute to our mission.”
She added, “The last thing we want is for an employee to come in and start spreading germs and making other people sick and making our clients sick.”
Under the bill, employees could accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to a limit of 56 hours of paid sick time per year. They could use the time before it is earned.
The time off could be used by the worker when ill or to care for a sick or injured family member.
The food industry is filled with workers who have “a life of living paycheck to paycheck,” said Wes Hamilton, co-owner of Three Penny Taproom and Mad Taco in Montpelier.
Without sick days those workers “face the dilemma of coming to work with a cold or feeling a little ill or staying home to care for themselves and risk not being able to pay their rent or not being able to have money in their pocket to buy the groceries they need that week,” he said.
But Hamilton said he doesn’t offer sick days to his 70 workers at his restaurants. He said he wants to but can’t unless his competitors do the same. The pending legislation would bring uniformity to the food service industry in the state, he said.
“The close margins of the restaurant industry make it extremely difficult for us to (offer paid sick time) and to remain competitive in the marketplace,” he said. “The reality of the restaurant industry is tight margins, and your pricing, your offerings, is very much dictated by what everyone else around you does.”
Business owners fighting the legislation want lawmakers to believe that paid sick days will harm the economy and cost the state jobs, Hamilton said. But that theory has not panned out in areas where similar legislation has been enacted, he said.
“I’d like them to explain why that hasn’t happened in San Francisco, where paid sick days have been mandated for seven years,” he said.
Vermont Creamery owner Allison Hooper also urged passage of the bill. She said opponents have argued that paid sick time will lead to more absenteeism, but having workers who can’t take days off when needed can be worse, she said.
“In our business of making food it is especially risky for the product to have sick employees at work. And having employees resign because they can’t take a day off to care for an aging parent or a child is really bad for business,” she said.
Hooper said her business, based in Barre Town, already meets the proposed requirements but will now add maternity and paternity leave as a benefit to stay ahead.
“It made me want to offer more to be assured that we would remain competitive and attract and retain the best people,” she said. “Requiring the minimum will only push us all to do more. This is an economic development tool, not a deterrent. And what could be a better recruitment tool for a state than garnering a reputation for family-friendly work policies?”
Meanwhile, Randy George and Liza Cain, co-owners of Red Hen Baking Co. in Middlesex, credited sick days and other benefits for helping them retain skilled workers and boosting productivity. George said the bakery has experienced fewer last-minute absences because of paid sick days.
The committee is expected to vote the bill out next week.
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