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

Voluntary Or Mandatory? Clash Over Paid Family Leave Approach To Resume In 2020

The golden dome of the Vermont Statehouse against blue sky.
Ric Cengeri
/
VPR File
Disagreements over mandatory paid family leave proposals and over legislation raising the state minimum wage were not resolved during the 2019 legislative session, setting the stage for a renewed debate in January at the Statehouse.

Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson says the passage of a mandatory paid family leave bill will be a top priority in Vermont's 2020 legislative session, but Republican Gov. Phil Scott opposes the Democrats' approach to this issue.

During the 2019 session, both the House and the Senate passed their own versions of a mandatory paid family leave bill. However, disagreements over that bill and over legislation raising the state minimum wage were not resolved, setting the stage for a renewed debate in January at the Statehouse.

More from VPR — Vermont Senate Adjourns, Pushing Paid Leave & Minimum Wage Efforts To 2020 [May 29]

Under the House plan, employees would be eligible for three months of paid time off for the birth of a child or two months to provide care for a sick family member. It would be financed with a payroll tax — between two-tenths and five-tenths of 1% depending on the size of the final benefit package.

For Johnson, there are few issues on her agenda that are as important as paid family leave.

"I think a program that helps employees balance their work responsibilities and their family life is very important," said Johnson. "We need a better system for how to take care of families. If we want Vermont to work for families, we need policies that support families." 

The major issue in this debate is whether the plan should be voluntary or mandatory. Scott thinks a paid family leave plan would help attract more young families to Vermont, but he wants it to be voluntary.

"A paid family leave program would be helpful to Vermonters," Scott said recently on Vermont Edition. "I just think it should be voluntary, and I don't believe that we should have a payroll tax that would cost Vermonters $25 [million] to $80 million a year in order to do it."

"A paid family leave program would be helpful to Vermonters. I just think it should be voluntary." — Gov. Phil Scott

Last year, Scott joined with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu to propose a bi-state paid family leave program that would initially be available to all state employees in Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as any businesses in the two states. But the proposal didn't gain much traction with Vermont lawmakers and it faces an uncertain future in New Hampshire.

According to Scott, Vermont doesn't need a partner to launch its own program.

"If we can introduce this and bring in our state employees, start this off, ... I've spoken to employers who would love to take advantage of a program like this," Scott said. "They don't want a mandatory program, but they think that this could work."

Johnson said the economics work against the voluntary plan. That's because, she said, the pool of participants would be a lot smaller and that means premiums would be a lot higher.

"People don't participate, which then makes the premiums even higher, and it winds up in this negative reinforcing spiral," Johnson said. "And it's not successful, and Vermonters deserve better."

"What's important is the 'all in,' because you honestly don't know when you're going to need this. ... We want to make sure that it is a shared responsibility and it's affordable." — House Speaker Mitzi Johnson

Scott is floating out a compromise — start with a voluntary program, and if it's not successful, then make it mandatory.

"Let's walk before we run. Let's prove this out, let's see how it works," Scott said. "I mean what's the harm in doing this as a voluntary program and see how, see if people engage? And if it doesn't, you can always move to a mandatory system."  

More from Vermont EditionGov. Phil Scott Discusses His 2020 Priorities [Nov. 1]

But Johnson said many Vermonters need these benefits as soon as possible.

"What's important is the 'all in,' because you honestly don't know when you're going to need this," said Johnson. "It's not just about a new family member — it's about a sick family member, as well — and we want to make sure that it is a shared responsibility and it's affordable."

Scott though has made it clear that he will likely veto a mandatory bill. The question for the Democrats is whether they can muster enough support to override his veto.

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