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January 31, 2014

On Paid Sick Leave, Top Vermont Dems Are Noncommittal

Paid sick leave hearing 1.30.14
John Dubie, owner of Burlington's Pearl Street Beverage, testified against paid sick leave legislation Thursday at the Statehouse.

With a reference to the world of Don Draper, President Obama renewed his call for mandatory paid sick leave Tuesday night in his State of the Union address

"A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship," he said. "And you know what, a father does, too. It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode."

But the president's full-throated support for the idea isn't exactly echoed by Vermont's Democratic leaders. As a committee in the Vermont House takes up legislation that would require businesses to provide employees up to seven days per year in accrued, paid sick leave, top Dems have been hesitant to take a side.

That's not too surprising, given how the issue has divided constituencies they're always trying to court: In favor of it are groups that advocate for workers, women, the elderly and left-leaning businesses. Opposed are those that represent contractors, retailers, grocers, dairy farmers and the state's largest employers.

With the legislation's fate entirely uncertain, Democratic leaders appear to be taking a route of caution: Avoid taking a firm stance until absolutely necessary. 

Case in point: Gov. Peter Shumlin, whose populist rhetoric occasionally clashes with his desire to appease the business community, has sent some decidedly mixed signals.

"We all believe this is the right thing to do," he said in a written statement earlier this month. "The devil is always in the details, including who pays and how it is mandated. I think it is a good conversation to have, but I won't pass judgment on it until I see what the plan is."

In an interview Thursday with WPTZ-TV, Shumlin appeared far more skeptical

Though labor groups are mounting a full court press for passage, Gov. Peter Shumlin is cool to the idea and is not signaling support this year.

Shumlin told NewsChannel Five "any costs to business hurt. The question is how do you absorb costs in a fair way and I'm not sure we've figured that one out."

Shumlin's spokeswoman, Sue Allen, said Thursday that his earlier statement still stands and that the gov "has met with both sides on this issue and asked for data and information."

In the Statehouse, both Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell and House Speaker Shap Smith say that while they may support the principle of ensuring that workers can stay home sick, they're concerned about the burden the legislation would place on employers.

"Right now, we're still getting over this recession and there are small businesses that have been just trying to stay afloat these last four or five years," Campbell says. "I certainly do not want to come up with another mandate from Montpelier that is the final straw on their financial backs."

As for where his caucus stands, Campbell says it's too soon to say. But, he adds, "I know there has been a lot of concern raised by many of my colleagues about whether this is the right time for such a move."

Two reasons the timing isn't great for legislators: Vermont Health Connect and Shumlin's single-payer ambitions.

In the case of the former, small businesses are feeling burned after the state forced them to purchase health insurance through the federally-mandated health exchange — and then failed to build a system that worked. In the case of the latter, businesses are concerned about how Shumlin and the legislature plan to pay for a single-payer system slated to take effect in 2017. Lawmkers will have to vote on such a plan, which may include a whopping increase in payroll taxes, as soon as next year.

With an election looming, even the state's dominant Democratic Party has to worry about whether it's pushing businesses too far.

Smith says he views paid sick leave as "basically a public health and a fairness issue." And he says the House should have a "full and robust debate" about it. But he says that many of his members are hearing from small business owners in their districts who are expressing plenty of concern.

"I think it's legitimate to ask the question of whether the time is right to move forward with another mandate," the speaker says.

The passion ignited by the issue was on full display Thursday as supporters and opponents packed a House committee hearing on the matter.

Speaking in favor of the bill were those who said they were forced to neglect their own health or that of their children in order to hold down jobs with inflexible sick leave policies. Speaking against it were contractors who said the cost of the mandate would make their businesses less competitive and retailers who said their employees would take advantage of it.

That the hearing even took place — and that the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs has taken up the legislation — has been greeted as good news by advocates of paid sick leave. The committee's chairwoman, Rep. Helen Head (D-South Burlington), says she backs the bill and thinks many of her colleagues do, too.

"I think there's a lot of support for it within the committee and within the House," she says.

But even if rank-and-file Dems are generally supportive, the bill won't reach the finish line by the end of the session unless legislative leaders identify it as a priority. And if they're actually applying the brakes behind the scenes, the legislation doesn't stand a chance.

Even Smith, who appears to be the most amenable of the three Democratic leaders, isn't ready to commit to sending the bill to the House floor.

"It's not clear whether we'll move the bill forward or not," he says.

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