Only four states have laws that mandate paid family and medical leave for workers. Democratic candidate for governor Sue Minter wants Vermont to join that small club, and lawmakers and advocates are already working to advance the legislation.
Earlier this week, at a gubernatorial debate in Randolph, a voter from Montpelier rose from the audience to ask a question. Michael Whalen said welcoming a new baby is an important time for families across the state.
“What are you planning to do to expand parental leave to all Vermonters?” Whalen wanted to know.
Democrat Sue Minter thanked Whalen for highlighting the issue, and said the existing system is untenable for many new parents.
“No one should have to choose between their job and their family, particularly their child,” Minter said.
If elected governor, Minter said she plans to pursue legislation that would require paid family and medical leave for workers, a law that only California, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York have on the books.
“So there’s quite a bit of work we need to do to get there, but I am determined to take us on that path,” Minter said.
The concept isn’t a new one here. Lawmakers like Burlington Rep. Jill Krowinski, a Democrat, have perennially introduced paid family and medical leave bills in Montpelier.
Krowinski says economic security is at the top of the list of concerns among constituents she speaks with.
“One of the solutions that keeps on coming back is, is there a way that we can create a paid family leave policy in this state that is universal, that creates a level playing field, and supports our small businesses?” Krowinski says.
Lawmakers will soon have a much better idea of what that policy might look like. The Vermont Commission on Women won a $173,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to conduct an analysis of cost and possible financing structures for a paid family and medical leave program.
The study will examine the potential ripple effect of a paid family and medical leave policy on various sectors of the economy. The study got underway last month and is due back at the end of the year.
Cary Brown, executive director of the Commission on Women, says the commission is looking for ways to address gender inequities in the workplace, including the pay gap between men and women.
“And one of the ways to help support women doing that is paid family leave,” Brown says.
Not everyone is on board. Republican candidate for governor Phil Scott said at the debate in Randolph that he too wants to alleviate the financial plight of new parents. He says a new mandate isn’t the way to go.
“I don’t believe that our infrastructure, our economy, can endure that at this time,” Scott says.
But advocates say the state can configure its paid family and medical leave laws in ways that insulate businesses from any economic impact.
Lindsay DesLauriers is the state director of the Main Street Alliance, a group of Vermont businesses that advocates for politically progressive policies. Unlike the paid sick leave law that passed this past session, which requires businesses to absorb the financial hit, DesLauriers says Main Street Alliance favors a policy that would require workers to pay the tab for paid family and medical leave.
“What we’re looking at now in Vermont is establishing statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program,” DesLauriers says.
All workers would pay into a pool, through some kind of withholding tax. If a worker has a baby or gets sick or needs to care for an ailing loved one, they could take a yet-to-be-determined number of weeks off with either full pay or partial compensation.
Krowinski says results of the Commission on Women study will help lawmakers work out the details of the legislation. And Krowinski says she views the legislation as an economic development tool, “which we’ve been talking a lot about lately when we’re trying to figure out what we can do to recruit young professionals to come to Vermont.”
Some business officials remain concerned. William Driscoll, the vice-president of Associated Industries of Vermont, says any new tax, whether it’s on workers or employers, is going to increase labor costs. And even if it’s assessed only on workers, Driscoll says there will be pressure on employers to make up the difference in what employees are losing.
Driscoll says that not all workers will take advantage of the paid leave program, meaning many employees would never recoup the money they have to pay into the program. And he also says he worries lawmakers will end up shifting a portion of the burden to employers, an approach Minter said that she favors.
Minter said during the debate that she wants to begin with a voluntary program in which workers and their employers pay into a paid family leave pool, then transition into a statewide mandate.
Whatever the paid family leave proposal looks like, lawmakers and advocates are gearing up for a major push in the coming biennium.
DesLauriers says Main Street Alliance has already enlisted more than 100 businesses to support the program, and she says the organization is conducting business surveys that indicate high levels of support.
Krowinski says it’s too early to gauge prospects for paid family and medical leave legislation in 2017.
“But I am serious about creating a coalition to put legislation forward to be considered and to take it from there,” Krowinski says.