- Associated Press - Thursday, January 30, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Advocates of a bill that would provide paid sick leave for most people who work in Vermont have high hopes that the legislation will pass despite pushback from several business associations.

Supporters and detractors gave testimony Thursday before the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs. Remarks came from a variety of industries, part-time workers, business owners, teachers and single parents.

Nate Blaise of Randolph recounted his recovery from a heart attack. He said he had to return to work before being medically cleared because his employer at the time did not provide paid sick days.

It’s a “public health disaster” for sick employees to have to work, said Shelley Martin, president of the Vermont State Employees’ Association. Martin suffered from cancer and as a state employee used paid leave that she said stopped her from becoming a burden on the state.

About 20 percent of state employees are temporary workers not eligible for paid sick leave, Martin said, a problem not just for them, but their full-time coworkers.

“I sometimes was forced to wear a mask to work for fear of becoming sick at a time when it could have literally worsened my chances to survive,” Martin said.

Previous versions of the bill have been circulating at the statehouse for about 10 years, said Lindsay DesLauriers, a public policy associate at Voices for Vermont’s Children. DesLauriers said she worked on drafting the current bill and is hopeful about its chances of passage.

“With the implementation of (the federal health care law), the story we’re repeatedly hearing from many businesses is that they’re suddenly dropping people down to part-time, and as a result, people are losing paid sick time benefits and other benefits,” DesLauriers said.

Jennifer Kimmich of The Alchemist, the brewery producing Heady Topper beer, supports the bill and called on the business community “to stand up and say we care.”

But not all business owners expressed support.

John Dubie, owner of Pearl Street Beverage, said a sick leave bill combined with a possible minimum wage increase makes the Vermont legislature “the single biggest threat to the survival of my small business.”

The Vermont Coalition for Employment and Prosperity, which represents 21 business associations including contractors, dairy farmers, grocers and ski areas, conducted a survey of their member associations and reported that 77 percent opposed core provisions of the House bill. VCEP said respondents expressed concerns about “increased costs and administrative burdens” and losing flexibility with their employees.

DesLauriers said drafters of the bill worked with many businesses to make the bill more flexible. Work with educators led to long-term substitute teachers, but not daily substitute teachers, being covered under the proposed law, she said.

The exact details of the final bill could mean the difference between getting Gov. Peter Shumlin’s approval and not.

Shumlin has supported the idea of expanded paid sick leave, but Susan Allen, his deputy chief of staff said in an email that Shumlin “won’t pass judgment until he sees what the plan is.”

The only state with a paid sick leave requirement for private sector employment is Connecticut, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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