BRATTLEBORO—In the debate over whether Vermont should enact a law that mandates paid family and medical leave, Chad Simmons has a uniquely personal perspective.
On one hand, he is a new dad who is taking unpaid leave from his job in order to help care for his daughter. On the other hand, Simmons’ wife runs a small company in Brattleboro, and such businesses would be expected to comply with new mandates under such an initiative.
So Simmons wants to be sure that if the Legislature pursues a new statute governing long-term paid leave, all parties know what they’re getting into.
“Is this going to be easy, both for employers and employees, to navigate?” Simmons asked during a Sept. 15 forum in Brattleboro.
The two groups are gathering public input on the possibility of developing a state-run Temporary Disability and Caregiver Insurance Program — essentially, a paid-leave program — in Vermont.
And while the Main Street Alliance has a track record of supporting such progressive causes as raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing paid sick days, Ashley Moore, the outreach coordinator who ran the Brattleboro session, said the forums aren’t meant to be a lobbying effort.
“Right now, we’re just interested in hearing from Vermonters on this issue,” she said, adding that information gathered during the forums will be sent to an oversight committee for review and “additional guidance.”
Several years of movement in the Legislature
There has been some movement toward paid-leave policies. A 2014 report from a study committee of the Legislature proposed creation of a paid medical and family leave benefit program that would offer a maximum of six weeks’ leave in any 12-month period. Beneficiaries would receive 100 percent of their pay.
The program would provide “benefits for the serious illness of the employee or the employee’s family members as well as for parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child,” committee members wrote at the time.
Anyone who earned at least $9,079 in the previous 12 months would be eligible, but lawmakers tried to limit the financial impact on Vermont businesses by proposing that employees pay for the initiative by contributing 0.5 percent of their income to a special state fund set aside for the paid-leave program.
In the 2015 legislative session, state Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive, introduced a bill providing for “employee-funded paid family leave.” The bill was referred to the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, but it went no further.
Some believe the time has come to press the issue further in Vermont. In its 2014 report, the House’s Study Committee on Employee-Funded Paid Family Leave noted that “many employees nationally and in Vermont are eligible for unpaid family leave through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and/or the Vermont Parental and Family Leave Act (PFLA).”
But the committee saw a flaw in providing only for unpaid long-term time off.
“Leave remains an inaccessible right for those who cannot afford it,” lawmakers wrote. “Providing an employee-funded mechanism for paid family leave would increase access to this important support that will help workers and provide greater stability for their families without undue impact on employers.”
Moore underscored that sentiment in her presentation on Tuesday. Only two nations — Papua New Guinea and the United States — don’t offer paid maternity leave. “We’re definitely behind as a country,” she said.
And there aren’t a lot of private employers who are picking up the slack, paid-leave advocates say. Nationwide, only 13 percent of all workers have access to paid family leave through programs provided by their employers, Moore said.
While California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island each have enacted paid family leave programs, workers in those states face a hit to wages. Moore lauded the recent Vermont proposals, which offer paid leave without a reduction in earnings.
“No other place has 100-percent wage replacement,” she said. “They really wanted to make this accessible to all Vermonters.”
The handful of participants at the meeting — including representatives from for-profit, nonprofit, and governmental sectors — were supportive of the concept of paid family and medical leave. But they also agreed that the devil is in the details.
Angela Earle Gray, human resources director at Bellows Falls-based Chroma Technology Corp., noted that her company has been “very supportive” of an ongoing effort to mandate expansion of paid sick days in Vermont. And she believes that offering better benefits is a marketing tool for businesses.
“When Vermont is one of the leaders in employee-centric benefits, that’s something we can point to,” she said. “Being out in front is something good that we can publicize.”
Kerry Secrest, a Brattleboro resident who serves on the Vermont Commission on Women, said touting the economic benefits of paid leave is one way to combat fear of change.
“If there are benefits to the employer, like retention, I think we want to highlight it,” she said.
At the same time, Gray said, it would be important for federal and state paid-leave policies — if both are eventually enacted — to have some overlap so human-resources administrators don’t have to “balance between them.”
That regulatory concern may be even greater for small businesses and nonprofits, said Sue Graff, community investments director at the United Way of Windham County.
“I can count on one hand the number of nonprofits that have [human resources] people,” Graff said. “We’re a small employer, so what I see is the [potential] burden of these things.”
“I’m supportive of this in principle,” she added. “But what is it actually going to look like, and how are we actually going to do it?”
Graff also said it can be difficult for employees to understand their eligibility for benefits. If the state enacts a paid-leave law, “there has to be as much employee and community outreach as there is for employers,” she said.
Simmons, who represents Southeast Vermont Building Bright Futures, said he’s optimistic that the state will be able to strike the right balance between families and business.
“I want to be able to provide everything that a father and a parent wants to provide and also participate in our community as a citizen,” Simmons said. “And everyone should have the opportunity to do that without fear of losing a job or living in poverty.”
Among those watching the paid-leave debate are officials from the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber is “not insensitive to the needs of Vermonters to care for their families,” said Kendal Melvin, a government affairs specialist for the chamber, but he added that the business group is concerned about a new income tax to fund paid leave.
“At this time, employers are still absorbing increases to unemployment insurance taxes, gas taxes, health-care assessments, the annual increases in the minimum wage, and recent fee increases,” Melvin wrote in an email. “There are also labor mandates being discussed on the federal level including updating the overtime regulations.
“While the cost of the program is proposed to be paid for by employees, there is always a financial impact to business when making a significant administrative change. Adding a new income tax at this time on top of what Vermonters are already working to absorb will not help reach the affordability threshold for citizens or our businesses.”