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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Battle Over Paid Sick Days Begins

What promises to be one of the highest-profile political fights of the 2014 session got underway in earnest Tuesday when supporters of a bill that would require employers to supply paid sick days staged an opening day rally inside the Statehouse.

Dressed in the red T-shirts that have come to signify their organization, members of the Vermont Workers Center, the group leading the push, said it’s time “to hold our legislators accountable to our health and dignity in Vermont.”

“The current system forces us to choose between going to work sick or losing income or even our jobs,” said Amanda Sheppard, a Middlebury resident and member of a new union that represents home care workers. “We must choose between caring for those we love or going to work. It’s crucial that our elected officials support paid sick days this year.”

The paid sick days coalition – it also includes an advocacy organization called Voices for Vermont Children – looks to have won a path to a floor debate in the House, where Speaker Shap Smith has said he won’t stand in the way of an up-or-down vote.

Prospects in the Senate are less clear, and Gov. Peter Shumlin has yet to say whether he’ll support the bill.

Opponents of the legislation say 75 percent of Vermont businesses already provide some kind of paid leave for employees. Shawn Shouldice, Vermont state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said forcing all employers to provide paid sick days could disrupt business plans.

“Those that aren’t doing this aren’t doing so because they’re stingy scrooges. The fact of the matter is that they can’t run their business if someone doesn’t show up,” Shouldice said. “With 2 percent margins, it doesn’t work.”

Supporters, however, say the legislation will benefit not only the 60,000 Vermont workers that currently go without paid sick days, but also the health of those that do. When parents send their sick kids to school because they can’t afford to take the day off, one supporter at the rally said, “their education suffers, their health suffers, and they risk the health of their entire school community.”

“The health of our entire community is impacted,” said Travis Beebe-Woodard, a registered nurse and member of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

Interest groups on both sides of the issue are gearing up for a prolonged battle inside the Statehouse, where many Democratic lawmakers in the House have said the paid sick days legislation will be among their top priorities in 2014.

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