Working while sick? Vermont bill would ease the need
MONTPELIER >> Two years after a young Statehouse cafeteria worker told lawmakers she had come to work sick that day and made sandwiches, a bill requiring employers to provide paid sick leave cleared a key hurdle Tuesday.
"If I had a sign saying 'Laura's sick today,' we would have lost a lot of business," Laura Tyrell told a House committee in 2014. "But I had to be there to make money."
It's a lament heard often on the low-wage end of the labor force in Vermont and around the country, and is said to be especially common in the food-service industry. Workers who don't get paid leave for illness or family emergencies end up sending a sick child to spread illness around a school or day care center, or go to work themselves and spread pathogens via the food they serve.
The Senate on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to its version of a House-passed bill requiring paid time off after a year on the job: three days in the law's first two years; a minimum of five days a year after that. The measure is expected to win final Senate approval Wednesday, and go to Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has said he supports it.
Tyrell, who no longer works at the Statehouse, on Tuesday called that news "awesome." She added, "Obviously we need paid sick days. Everybody gets sick."
The Vermont chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business was less happy.
"It increases the cost of doing business," said NFIB spokesman Kris Jolin. "Small businesses can't always absorb that hit."
In years of off-and-on debate over the matter, some employers appear to be coming around.
"I just felt Montpelier had already been passing lots of tax increases and mandates on small businesses," said Matt Birong, owner of the 3 Squares Cafe on Main Street in Vergennes. In the push and pull of lobbyists for groups supporting and opposing the bill, "I saw it evolve into something that made more sense."
"It was never a lack of compassion" that prompted the wariness, Birong said. Rather, there was a need "to make it more palatable for everybody."
Birong said he was fine with the version the House passed last year. The Senate added provisions to make it more business-friendly. A worker accrues one hour of paid sick time for each 52 hours worked; the House had it at 40 hours. Employees working less than 18 hours a week or 20 weeks at a stretch would not be covered.
Some in the Senate noted that the exemption for working less than 20 weeks would mean Vermont's ski areas — and their restaurants — would not be covered.
Sen. Mark McDonald suggested the state might want to differentiate between food-service and other lines of work. As written, the legislation "completely ignores whether the employer is providing food for people to eat or whether you're calling in sick when you're splitting wood and stacking it by yourself," he said.
More than 20 cities around the country, the states of California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Oregon and the District of Columbia have mandatory paid sick leave, supporters of the Vermont bill said.
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