Seven Laws-to-Be That Could Affect Your Life | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Seven Laws-to-Be That Could Affect Your Life

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When Vermont's 2017 legislative session ends — assuming it ever does — readers are sure to know the legal status of a certain mind-altering substance, and they'll probably understand more than they care to know about teachers' health insurance.

Of course, the Vermont legislature did more than vote to legalize marijuana and spar with Gov. Phil Scott over health care savings. As of late Tuesday, 86 bills had made it through both the House and Senate and were either awaiting Scott's signature or had already been signed into law.

Many apply only to particular groups — inmates, cops, captive insurance companies — but some apply to a broad swath of Vermonters. Seven Days chose seven bills that, in modest but meaningful ways, may affect your life.

If you're pregnant

One might hope that employers have the decency to refrain from making pregnant workers lift 50 pounds, but that isn't always the case, according to Dr. George Till.

The ob-gyn physician said he's seen patients lose jobs as a result of pregnancy.

He wrote a note for a nursing-home employee saying she shouldn't lift more than 50 pounds, and she was promptly fired. Another time, Till recalled, "I had somebody who had to quit her job because she worked on a factory line, and they wouldn't let her break often enough to go to the bathroom."

Conveniently, Till also happens to be a state representative. This year, the Jericho Democrat successfully steered a bill through the legislature entitling pregnant employees to "reasonable accommodations" at their workplace. That adjustment might mean providing a stool for someone who stands behind a cash register all day or being more generous with bathroom breaks.

Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, praised the legislation: "Three-quarters of women entering the workforce will be pregnant and employed at some point in their lives," she said. "Sometimes a simple accommodation can make the difference between being able to continue working and having to take time off, and the strength of Vermont's economy depends on women's ability to remain in their jobs and support their families."

If you don't want to "friend" your boss on Facebook

For those of us who joined Facebook in college, the social media platform immortalized our most irresponsible moments. Sensible professionals make their profiles private — a photo of a keg stand generally doesn't advance one's career — but some employers insist that prospective or current employees hand over passwords, accept friend requests or otherwise provide access to personal social media accounts.

Leave it to a millennial lawmaker to fix what many would consider an invasion of privacy. "I think that's really weird," said 32-year-old Rep. Matt Hill (D-Johnson). "Prior to social media, no one would say, 'Hey, let me see your diary.'"

Hill, who likens his own Facebook experience to "a bad relationship — on and off for six or seven years," used to work at the Vermont Department of Labor. There, he sometimes dealt with complaints from employees whose bosses had asked to view their social media accounts. He found himself explaining that nothing in state law prevented employers from seeking such access.

One of Hill's first acts as a freshman representative this year was to introduce legislation prohibiting employers from requiring or or coercing employees to give them access to Facebook, Instagram, blogs or any other form of social media.

Thanks to him, your digital diaries will soon be off-limits to your boss.

If you still text and drive

You're in good company. In 2014, Vermont banned the use of handheld devices while driving, but the state has the most distracted drivers in the nation, according to a study by the company Zendrive. Using data collected from sensors in the phones of 3.1 million drivers, it found that Vermonters spend 7 percent of their driving time on their phones. That's twice as much as Oregon, which had the lowest rate.

"It is a problem," said Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. "We all continue to see it, and it's very dangerous."

Vermont police officers have gotten resourceful about nabbing offenders. They will ride along in a big rig, allowing them to peer down into cars, or go undercover as a construction flagger.

Cops' creative strategies haven't persuaded drivers to put down their devices, though. In a second legislative attempt to influence their behavior, Mazza's committee wrote a bill that increases the penalties for using phones without a hands-free device.

Right now, motorists can be fined up to $200 for a first offense and $500 for subsequent offenses. Under this legislation, they'll also accumulate penalty points on their license: two for a first offense and four for subsequent ones.

If you're not saving for retirement

Stowe Street Café is a family-owned coffee shop in Waterbury that hosts community events such as Friday Night Sushi & Bring Your Own Vinyl. Its baristas are among the 104,000 Vermonters who, according to the AARP, don't get retirement benefits through their work.

Café owner Nicole Grenier said she wants to offer it, but her business is so small that "it's just not something that financially would be feasible."

After years of study, and pending final approval by both chambers, the legislature will finally set up a public retirement plan that will benefit Grenier's baristas and anyone else whose job doesn't provide a retirement plan.

The public option will allow workers to make pretax contributions directly from their paychecks, and it will eventually give employers the option of pitching in as well. The benefit won't be tied to employment, so switching jobs won't require changing plans.

A panel of seven, chaired by the state treasurer, will oversee the fund, which must be up and running no later than 2019.

State Treasurer Beth Pearce makes the case that employees aren't the only ones who'll benefit.

"Studies have shown that a dramatic reduction in government expenditures occurs when you're able to increase the net worth of folks that are contemplating retirement," she noted. "We see this as a win for taxpayers, a win for retirees and a win for employers."

If you're pestered by telemarketers

In divisive times, we can all unite around at least one thing: shared antipathy toward telemarketers.

"This is really getting out of control," said Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-West Dover), who spearheaded legislation requiring telemarketers to provide accurate caller ID information. When she went around the Statehouse at the start of the session seeking cosponsors, "people were falling over themselves to sign onto this."

Some solicitors are scammers who use blocked or fake phone numbers to mask their identities.

After Sibilia introduced her bill in February, University of Vermont students started getting calls from someone claiming to be a Federal Bureau of Investigation employee who told them that they owed money to the Internal Revenue Service. According to UVM police, the caller used "phone number spoofing to make it appear that they were calling from the local Burlington FBI offices."

Under Sibilia's legislation, which requires that telemarketers provide their actual number and name, it should at least be easier to figure out who's on the other end of the line. Also helpful: Telemarketers must register with the secretary of state.

Violators face up to 18 months in prison or fines up to $10,000.

If you have a cat or dog

Legislation introduced by Rep. John Bartholomew (D-Hartland), a former veterinarian, spells out what kind of accommodations must be provided for four-legged companions.

For example, doghouses must allow the animal to "turn about freely, stand, sit and lie down" and must be "structurally sound and constructed of suitable, durable material."

Metal barrels, cars, refrigerators and freezers are not acceptable doghouses, the legislation notes.

It contains similar provisions for cats.

Before the Senate debated the bill, Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) told his colleagues, "We spent a great deal of time on this bill, not just this year, but last year, the year before that, and the year before that." Lawmakers debated appropriate dimensions at length, and not everyone is convinced they got it right.

"It's guesswork," said Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor). "We're not dogs."

Don't worry — the bill doesn't demand dog mansions. While outlined in great detail, the types of accommodations aren't anything more extravagant than humane pet owners would provide of their own accord. The goal of the legislation is to make it easier to prosecute animal cruelty crimes.

If you need a copy of your birth certificate

Right now, anyone who wants a certified copy of a Vermont native's birth certificate can get it by going to the town clerk's office where he or she was born.

Legislation passed this session makes it easier for residents to obtain their own birth certificates and harder for potential identity thieves to get hold of them.

"This is a security issue of deep concern to Vermonters in the age of identity theft," Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) said as he presented the bill to fellow senators.

The bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Dennis Devereux (R-Belmont), offered a hypothetical: "Someone from a foreign nation — Russia — could ask for my birth certificate," he posited.

The bill creates a statewide electronic repository for birth certificates, which the state registrar will oversee. Having a centralized system means Vermont-born residents will be able to pick up a copy of their birth certificate at any town clerk's office, rather than trek back to wherever they were born. The legislation also limits who else can request a certified copy to close relatives, guardians and legal representatives.

According to Devereux, Vermont is behind the curve. Forty-seven states already have similar requirements in place, he said.


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