A new statewide campaign renews the fight for paid time off.
On Thursday, the Vermont FaMLI (Family and Medical Leave Insurance) Coalition – a group of more than 25 organizations, including the Vermont Main Street Alliance, the Vermont Commission on Women and Voices for Vermont’s Children – launched its “We Believe in Paid Leave” campaign, a video series that highlights the stories of small business owners across the state who support a national paid family and medical leave program.
The effort comes a year and a half after Gov. Phil Scott vetoed legislation that would have created a statewide paid vacation program through a mandatory $ 29 million payroll tax payable by employers and workers.
The plan would have given Vermonters up to 12 weeks off to care for a newborn baby and up to eight weeks off to care for a sick family member.
Now, in light of the pandemic, advocates are once again calling for action.
The group made its case at a Zoom press conference Thursday, reporting that only 19% of workers in Vermont have access to paid family leave and only 40% have employer-provided personal medical leave.
Akshata Nayak, owner of a small business in Jericho, said paid time off would be a game-changer for sole proprietors like her, as well as the many frontline workers who put their health and safety at risk during the pandemic.
“We need a national solution that will take care of all workers, all small businesses; provide enough compensation and time for it to be effective (and) schedule all kinds of leave, including personal, family and parental leave, ”she said.
Some Vermont lawmakers have also rallied around the issue, with several joining Thursday’s call.
U.S. Representative Peter Welch, D-Vt., Said the pandemic has demonstrated there is an economic case to be made for creating a universal paid vacation program, noting the hardships families have endured while balancing work and family life during such a difficult time.
He argued, however, that it was not just about economics.
“It’s about knowing what kind of society do we want to live in? And what kind of social insurance programs do we want everyone to apply? Because at some point we are all going to need to take time, ”he said. “This is the job we should be doing, creating stability and security for families.”
Welch alluded to President Joe Biden’s US family plan, which includes a paid family and medical leave program that would provide workers with 12 weeks of leave and up to $ 4,000 a month.
He urged the defenders to continue their efforts.
“Now, for the federal government to act, leadership at the state level has been essential. The work you do – make visible the reality of each of these workers who have testified… make visible the fullness of their life, make visible the love they have that motivates them to want to get this time to take care of a to be dear, so as not to take time off, ”he said.
Lt. Gov. Molly Gray shared her personal experience of using all of her vacation and sick days accumulated when her mother was hospitalized in 2019. The experience left her wondering how long she would be. able to support herself if she were to take unpaid leave. .
“My story is not unique. Long before the pandemic, women and caregivers in Vermont found themselves in the position of having to make difficult decisions between caring for loved ones and paying the bills, ”she said.
Gray cited the National Women’s Law Center, which reported that between February 2020 and February 2021, more than 2.3 million women left the workforce in the United States.
She also highlighted Vermont’s “lingering demographic crisis” characterized by a shrinking workforce, an aging population and a “sandwich generation” of Vermonters who care for both children and parents.
“Put simply, our families, our communities, our employers and our economy lose when women and caregivers leave the workforce. We just can’t afford it here in Vermont, ”she said.
In a pre-recorded video, Vermont Senate Speaker Becca Balint called paid time off a fairness issue.
“It’s a question of fairness. It’s about helping women. It’s about helping people of color. It’s about helping single parents across the state, and I really hope next year we’ll see paid family and medical leave cross the finish line, and I can’t wait to be. that day, ”she said.
But while Vermont Democrats and Progressives have championed universal paid leave, others have raised concerns.
Scott administration representative Jason Maulucci said in an email that the governor supports the voluntary paid family leave program he previously offered in 2019.
“He does not, however, support the state imposing a new mandatory payroll tax on already overtaxed Vermonters,” Maulucci wrote.
He added that the governor was eager to see how a federal paid family leave program could be paid for.
Kevin Eschelbach, president of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce, echoed Scott’s tax concerns.
“(We’re) not necessarily opposed to that, per se, but we are concerned about the price to be paid for local businesses that are finally coming out of COVID, and many of them are still struggling. “
He added, however, that a program implemented by the federal government would likely be better received because it would level the playing field and not disadvantage Vermont businesses “with a different tax than out-of-state businesses. would not necessarily be required to pay. “
Lyle Jepson, executive director of the Rutland Chamber and Economic Development (CEDRR), said it comes down to affordability for businesses and workers.
He cited paid time off, along with higher wages, health care benefits and child care, as pieces of a puzzle that need to be put together.
“I wouldn’t say it’s about competing interests, because it’s one and the same, but we have to find the formula that makes it affordable,” he said.
He agreed with Eschelbach that a federal program would be easier to handle.
“I think businesses just need to know how to plan, and they don’t. They don’t like surprises. And if they can plan, they can probably make it work, ”he said.
jim.sabataso @ rutlandherald.com