Legislative Report: paid sick leave

By Rep. Mike Yantachka | Contributor

Last year the Vermont House passed a bill, H.187, to require Vermont employers to provide a minimum number of paid sick days to their employees. However, the Senate did not act on the bill before the session ended in May. As this year began, the Senate took up the bill and made several changes after hearing testimony from business leaders, labor representatives and many employees who do not currently have this benefit. The subsequent changes made it easier on small businesses to comply with the requirements of the bill. Last week I joined with the majority of my House colleagues to concur with the Senate’s changes and pass the amended bill, which Governor Shumlin has indicated he will sign into law.

Why is this bill needed? While about half of Vermont’s private sector employers offer some form of paid sick leave, less than half of employees working for companies with less than 20 employees have any paid sick leave. Around 60,000 workers have to take unpaid time off if they or their child or other family member gets sick. Since most of these workers are in minimum or low wage jobs, they can hardly afford to do so. In many cases they go to work sick or send their child to school sick. So this is a public health and safety matter as well as a labor issue.

Beginning January 1, 2017, the bill requires employers to provide every employee at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 52 hours worked. Up to 24 hours can be accrued annually during the first two years of implementation. Beginning January 1, 2019, up to 40 hours can be accrued in a 12-month period. So, if an employee only worked 20 hours per week, they would accumulate 20 hours over the course of the year. An employer with a paid time-off program such as vacation or combined time off (CTO) that is at least as generous and can be taken for the same reasons as sick leave already satisfies the requirements.

Other provisions give employers flexibility in scheduling if employees can give sufficient notice for their absence or can switch with other co-workers. Furthermore, an employer can require newly hired employees to wait one year before they can use the accrued sick leave. While the unused accumulated sick leave is to be rolled over into the next 12-month period, the employer can limit time off to the minimum required by law for that 12-month period. Employers can be more generous if they prefer.

In recognition of situations faced by many small businesses, several categories of employees do not fall under the provisions of the bill. Employers are not required to provide paid sick leave to employees who annually work less than 18 hours per week on average, work 20 weeks or less in a 12-month period, work on a per diem basis with no expectation of regular employment, or who are less than 18 years old. Substitute teachers, sole proprietors or business partners, and exempt state employees are also not covered by the bill. There is also a new employer exemption, which exempts a new business from complying with the law for a period of one year after the employer hires its first employee. In addition, the bill requires the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and the Department of Labor to develop a program that will assist employers with five or fewer employees with implementing a paid time off policy.

We recognize that there is a cost to our employers for this benefit, but we need to also consider the costs to workers, especially those at the low end of the pay scale, for not having this benefit. Costs are part of doing business. A business routinely invests in equipment that improves its operations. So, too, businesses should be willing to invest in their employees who are a benefit to their business as well.

I will be available at Town Meeting on March 1 if there is anything you would like to talk about with me. I always welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com). You can find this article and past articles at my website, MikeYantachka.com.

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