The Word in the House 2/3/2014 - Paid Sick Leave

You can be pretty sure that there will be a number of controversial issues during every legislative session.  These issues can involve easy to understand issues or they can be very complicated both to understand and to resolve.  I don’t envy members of the Education Committee who are trying to redesign education funding to take some of the pressure off property taxes; or members of the Health Care Committee who are tracking the efforts to provide health care to all Vermonters within an economically viable framework; or members of the money committees, Appropriations and Ways & Means, who always seem to be trying to fit 10 pounds of expenses into an 8 pound bag of revenues.

One issue generating controversy that I find easier to understand is whether all employees should be entitled to at least some paid sick days.  This issue seems to pit employees against small business owners.  The proposed legislation, introduced in the House as H.208 and in the Senate as S.255, would require employers to provide every employee at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, accruing annually up to 56 hours, i.e. seven days, of paid time off.  So, if an employee only worked 20 hours per week, they would accumulate almost 35 hours over the course of the year.  An employer with a paid sick leave policy that is comparable to or more generous than that required by the legislation is not required to provide additional paid health care time.  Furthermore, any 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 counts as satisfying the requirements. 

Many small employers argue that they cannot afford to pay for this time off.  They hire a limited number of part time employees and depend on them to be on the job when scheduled.  The restaurant industry, which typically runs on very tight margins, employs workers at relatively low hourly wages which are supplemented by tips.  These workers can hardly afford to take time off without pay.  According to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, 71% of employees in food preparation and serving related occupations in New England do not have access to paid sick time.  Yet, an employee sick with the flu puts both fellow employees and the clientele at risk.  According to Dr. Burton Wilke of the Vermont Public Health Association, a recent publication in the American Journal of Public Health found that the provision of paid sick leave could reduce the number of workplace-acquired cases of influenza by as much as 40%.

Women, who make up two-thirds of minimum wage workers nationwide, are more likely than men to have jobs without earned sick days or paid time off of any kind.  Lindsay DesLauriers, a public policy advocate at Voices for Vermont’s Children, recently testified before the Human Services Committee that "The workforce has shifted in the past 70 years to include more and more female breadwinners and female heads of household, and yet our workplace standards have not adjusted at all. Women continue to disproportionately bear the responsibilities for family life and are much more likely than men to report working part time so that they can manage the demands of family. Half of all women must miss work to care for their children when they are sick compared to 30% of men, and half of these working mothers report that they do not get paid when they stay home."
Whether it is because of personal illness or the illness of a dependent child or other family member, or because of an accidental injury, workers should be able to take a reasonable amount of time off without risking their livelihood.  As a co-sponsor of H.208, I will be voting for its passage when it reaches the floor of the House.