State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, says she is not giving up on her efforts to get a Paid Family Leave bill through the Legislature.
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, says she is not giving up on her efforts to get a Paid Family Leave bill through the Legislature.

Paid family leave bill gets shelved in Senate

The House passed the measure, but the Senate does not support it in its current form, so it will wait until 2024 — barring surprises in the last days of the current session

BRATTLEBORO — Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, brought to the Legislature this session a bill that was very dear to her heart: a comprehensive paid family leave bill.

It reintroduced a concept that is similar to bills that had been vetoed by the governor in past legislative sessions. But this year, with the Democrats having a super-majority, there would be enough votes to override a veto. And in the House, passing the bill became a priority.

Yet the bill did not even have a chance to be vetoed by the governor. The paid family and medical leave bill was tabled last week by House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, because it could not gain traction in the Senate.

“With the Senate, we don't agree on the funding source,” Krowinski told VTDigger. “We don't agree on how it's administered. We don't agree on who's covered with it. And so at this time, I think it's best that we continue to work on this over the summer and fall and come back to it in January.”

The bill would guarantee 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all Vermont workers, including part-time and seasonal ones.

Kornheiser told The Commons in January that the bill “is making sure that folks can take the time they need to care for a loved one, to care for a child, or to care for themselves if they're sick. It's for someone who needs to take safe leave because of domestic violence. It's for someone who is caring for someone or loves someone who's deployed.”

The bill, H.66, has the support of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR), Voices for Vermont's Children, Let's Grow Kids, and many other nonprofits, as well as most of the members of the House. Main Street Alliance and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility are both really key partners in the coalition that supports this bill, as is AARP, Kornheiser said.

It did not have the support the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, which was concerned with the potential cost to Vermont businesses.

Gov. Phil Scott also weighed in.

“It's important to know I support universal access to paid family and medical leave,” the governor said in a statement. “That's why my administration put forward a voluntary program that is now being implemented. Today, however, the House of Representative is considering a bill that, instead of being voluntary, would impose a mandatory and regressive payroll tax on Vermonters, costing an estimated $117 million every year.

“The House also envisions building and funding a new program from scratch, requiring the addition of over 60 new state employees. This will be no easy task, as we are currently facing a workforce shortage and presently have over 800 open positions in state government that we're unable to fill,” the governor continued.

Scott charged that with “record state surpluses and high inflation, it is counterintuitive to force a new broad-base tax on already overburdened Vermonters - especially when there is an alternative path to achieve our goal.”

Question of priorities

If passed, the proposal would cost about $120 million annually. It would be paid for by imposing a roughly 0.5% payroll tax to be split between employers and employees.

Kornheiser strongly disagrees with the governor about the cost.

“For every business that I've spoken to that's run the numbers, this program actually saves money,” she told The Commons this week.

“You get 12 weeks of leave for your employees for a cost of $125 a year per employee. It's actually an amazing opportunity, especially for small businesses that don't have the [human resources] capacity to be running something like this in-house.”

She said the bill was “not a priority” in the other chamber.

“They wanted to focus on child care,” Kornheiser said.

In contrast, the House believed that both measures could pass in the same year, “and that that would be a way of meeting the needs of a really broad constituency,” she said.

For Kornheiser, providing a child care bill along with a bill for paid family leave would focus help for people who provide caregiving across the age spectrum.

“The third piece, for me, was increased Medicaid reimbursement rates,” she said. “So that folks who are providing home care and things like that are getting paid more.”

Medicaid reimbursement is currently in the budget. The child care bill is still being discussed.

“In the final-final weeks of negotiations, we're trying to figure out the best financing package and some details of the policy,” Kornheiser said.

For her, those three bills together “felt like an opportunity to say that given the demographics of the state, we can invest in policies that prioritize care and the value of how much we all need that in our lives, and for the economy to work.”

“But it's a lot to get done in one year,” Kornheiser conceded.

A busy summer ahead

So what happened to paid family leave?

“It's become clear that while all of the House Democrats and Progressives heard a lot about the need for family medical leave on the campaign trail and in our communities, the senators didn't seem to have heard from the same folks throughout the year,” Kornheiser said.

Senators don't canvass their constituents as much as House members do, Kornheiser pointed out.

“On the campaign trail, people running for the House often knock on every door in their district,” Kornheiser said. “And that's not possible for senators to do. So we have members that tend to be a little closer to the ground in their communities. They have much smaller constituencies to work with.”

So the votes “aren't there yet in the Senate,” she said. “Senators don't know enough about the program yet. The Senate committee just did its first walkthrough of the bill last week.”

Once the Legislature adjourns for the year, Kornheiser and her supporters are planning an intensive grassroots education effort.

She, Krowinski, many other House members, and a few senators “are going to spend the summer and the fall turning out in our communities, talking about family medical leave, hearing from folks about how their lives probably need this program and how their lives might be improved from it, and talking to businesses about that,” Kornheiser said.

“We'll be building up the kind of campaign that we need to make sure everyone has all the stories of people's lives that they need to get something done,” she added.

Patience will be Kornheiser's secret weapon.

She said that when she started in the Legislature in 2019, she sat next to Rep. Matt Hill, D-Wolcott, in committee, who had been working on legislation that would allow Vermonters a right to repair their own vehicles or equipment - a right that has become increasingly fragile with modern technology.

“I got really interested in this idea and ended up co-sponsoring with him,” Kornheiser said. When Hill left the legislature in 2020, “I kept on sponsoring the bill,” she said.

“And you know, this year - five years later - it passed the House Agriculture Committee and came to the House floor, and we passed it on the House floor. And that's just a tiny little consumer rights bill.”

Kornheiser is disappointed but determined.

“We've gotten a lot of good work done this year, and, you know, at this time of year, anything is still possible with a week left,” she said. “But yeah, I'm really disappointed.”

Of course, the biennium continues with the start of the next session in January 2024 with unfinished business remaining in place for further deliberation.

But in the meantime, she believes Vermont needs a program like this today.

“And the longer we wait to pass it, more folks will leave their jobs because they need to care for a loved one,” Kornheiser said. “Either they aren't going to be able to pay their bills or they aren't going to be taking care of the people they need to be takimg care of.”

The absence of a program like this “puts people in a really impossible situation.”

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