The Word in the House 4/29/2015 - Promoting Healthy Workplaces

A couple sits down in a restaurant. A waitress comes over to take their order. They notice that she is all stuffed up, and as she recites the specials she turns away to cough. Who can blame them if they are more than a bit uncomfortable when she delivers their food? A meeting at the office is punctuated by sneezing and nose-blowing by a co-worker around the table. A week later several people have called in sick or are spreading their own cold germs around the office. A mother wakes up her 9-year old one morning and discovers that he has a 101 deg-F temperature. If she calls in to work to stay home and care for her son, she'll lose $80 from her next paycheck. She's already behind in her bills and can't afford to lose that money. But she has to stay home for her child's sake. You get the picture.

There are about 60,000 working Vermonters who do not get paid time off if they or a member of their family are ill. They face a choice of losing critical wages or, in some cases, losing their job, or putting others at risk of getting sick. Last year a similar bill had been introduced but failed to gain enough support to make it out of committee. Over the summer legislators, businesses, worker representatives and advocates got together and reworked the proposal to make it more acceptable to employers while providing a modest but needed benefit to employees. As a result, this past week the Vermont House of Representatives passed the Healthy Workplaces bill, H.187, to address this situation. Passage of the bill did not come without a great deal of controversy and floor debate. When the final vote was taken, the bill passed 72 to 63.

So, what does the bill actually do? H.187 guarantees that working Vermonters will be able to accrue up to three paid sick days each year. For every 40 hours worked, employees earn one hour of earned sick time. Eligibility includes all permanent workers, whether full time or part time. These hours can be used for personal illness, the illness of a family member, or seeking protection from domestic and sexual violence. While the accrual of time begins in 2016, employees would have to wait until they have worked 1400 hours or one year - whichever comes first - before they could access this benefit. Working full time, the 1400 hours would be equivalent to eight months of work. Starting in 2018 the amount of annual paid time that employees can earn would increase to five days. Certain workers are exempt from this rule. Seasonal workers, such as gardeners, ski area temps, and students who work during the summer or vacations are not covered. Nor are persons with guest worker visas, nor proprietors, partner-owners, managers or executives of a business. If the sick days are not used, they can be carried over, but an employer does not have to pay an employee for time not taken.

Opponents have suggested that this legislation will result in drastic increases in payroll costs. However, calculations suggest a one-time 1% increase in payroll in 2016 for employers currently providing no paid time off to any employees, followed in 2018 by a one-time 0.5% increase. Employers who currently offer any type of paid leave will be minimally affected as long as this time off can be used for unscheduled illness or safety concerns for themselves or their family. For example, if an employer offers five days of vacation time, reclassifying it to five days of combined time off (CTO) will put them in compliance. A separate sick time policy is not required. The bill is a minimum standard and employers are free to offer additional paid time off as part of their existing benefit package. This bill will positively affect thousands of working Vermonters, and businesses will gain by the improved loyalty and health of their employees.

I continue to welcome your feedback on this and other issues. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (