A Senate committee voted 4-1 Wednesday in support of a bill to protect workers' rights to claim employment benefits.
The bill, S.213, says businesses cannot penalize workers for taking advantage of benefits included in their compensation packages. It will go next to the full Senate for a vote, possibly by the end of the week.
A similar provision is contained in a paid leave bill that passed the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The standalone bill is short, but slightly more specific than the clause in the paid leave bill.
"You can't offer benefits, then say, 'If you use this benefit we're going to penalize you,'" said Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, chair of the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee.
The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, in response to an issue brought to his attention at the University of Vermont, where Baruth is an English professor. He said employees of UVM's food service provider, Sodexo, had complained to him that they were being penalized for taking sick days off, even though the benefit was included in their employment contracts.
Sodexo holds contracts at UVM, the Vermont State Colleges, Norwich University, St. Michael's College and other institutions in the state.
The company's attendance policy tacks points onto an employee's record for absences, tardiness and not showing up for work. After accumulating three points in a 12-month period, the employee is given a written "coaching" on absenteeism. After six points: a written "warning." Seven points is grounds for termination. More points are assessed for failure to call a supervisor before missing work.
The qualifying absences that result in points include sick days, or any unscheduled time off.
Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan said her department has received a "handful" of complaints about employees taking sick leave and then being penalized. She said the Vermont Labor Relations Board has ruled on two cases upholding a principle similar to the language in S.213.
Mullin said the provision would apply to benefits offered by any employer in the state.
Sen. Donald Collins, D-Franklin, said the Sodexo situation did not convince him to approve such broad legislation.
"I personally felt that we got insufficient testimony to warrant passing a piece of legislation," Collins said.
Collins said Sodexo made a clear case that its policy is more about attendance than claiming of benefits.
Mullin said the bill as written would not preclude employers from taking disciplinary action against employees who don't follow company policies for using sick leave.
Sodexo updated its attendance policy in August 2013. The new policy is not a substantive change, as the points system still applies, but it more clearly defines terms and notification protocols for unscheduled absences.