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

Debate Intensifies Over Paid Sick Leave Bill

One of the biggest debates of the second half of the legislative session could be over a bill that provides paid sick leave to all employees.

At the beginning of the session, backers of the bill felt they had enough votes in the House to pass their legislation. But it appears that some of that support has eroded for two reasons.

First, concerns have been raised by some members of the business community about how the mandate will affect small businesses.

Cathy Davis is vice president of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce – a group that has raised serious concerns about the bill.

“These businesses are absolutely doing their best to take care of their employees but that 'one size fits all' approach is just not the right way of doing it,” said Davis. “And I think legislators have really responded to those concerns and worked to understand the impact that something like this might have.”

The second reason is that some lawmakers think there’s a link between this bill and legislation increasing the state minimum wage, and that one, but not both of the bills should pass.

"We still have time in this Legislative session to turn this in a positive direction" Former Governor Madeleine Kunin on the chances of passing the Paid Sick Leave bill this year

Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, is the chairwoman of the House General Affairs committee. She disagrees with this analysis.

“I’m not sure that it is an either or proposition that is how some people have framed it,” said Head. “But I think that many people are understanding that it’s important that we make progress on both of these issues this year.”

Former Governor Madeleine Kunin has taken a lead role to pass the bill. Under the legislation, full time employees would be eligible for up to seven sick days a year. Business with fewer than five employees would be exempt from the bill.

Kunin says the plan is needed because roughly 20 percent of all workers in Vermont don’t receive any benefits from their employer.

House leaders say they aren’t sure that the bill has enough support to pass. But Kunin isn’t giving up.

“We still have time in this Legislative session to turn this in a positive direction,” said Kunin. “I’m confident that it’s going to happen. It may not be in precisely the shape it is now, but I think there is a desire to get this done.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin says he supports the concept of the bill but he says the concerns of some businesses that currently don’t offer benefits haven’t been addressed.

“In the companies that don’t how do you pay for it ? And obviously there’s wide disparity of views there,” said Shumlin. “I think we really haven’t vetted that adequately.”

But Kunin says businesses need to understand that the legislation will improve the lives of their employees.

“Yes the business community has some legitimate concerns because it’s new for them. But the concerns do not match reality because what do you get in return ?” said Kunin. “What do you get in return for treating your employees well?”

The legislation is currently being reviewed by the House Appropriations committee and there’s no timetable for the panel to vote on the bill.