- Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
- Vermont Statehouse
Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) invited family leave advocates to the Statehouse on Thursday to talk about the importance of such policies for workers and the economy.
In Vermont, women make 93 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Women are more likely to take time off from work to care for loved ones, said Cary Brown, the executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women.
“Our entire society rests on unpaid and underpaid labor being done by women," Brown said.
Paid family and medical leave has long been a top priority for Vermont Democrats, but the effort lost momentum in the legislature in the first years of the pandemic, even as COVID-19 exacerbated the need for caregiving support.
The issue has been widely expected to return in the upcoming legislative session. Scott, a Republican, got out ahead of Democrats on Tuesday by announcing his own plan for a voluntary paid family and medical leave plan.
The Democrats haven't unveiled a proposal yet, but state Rep. Emilie Kornheiser (D-Brattleboro) said on Thursday that the plan advocates are putting together would use a payroll or other tax to provide 12 weeks of state-supported leave for workers who need medical care or to care for a newborn or other family members.
“Vermonters, including legislators, understand the need for this program in a way that I don’t think we did before,” said Kornheiser, who was speaking from Washington, D.C., where she was attending a conference on family leave.
The idea of using tax revenues to pay for family leave has been a major sticking point for the Scott administration, but Kornheiser said opponents of the program might consider it differently now that businesses are having trouble finding workers.
“Businesses right now have a really different sense of the reality of the cost of lost employees, the cost of unanticipated time off,” she said.
The advocates who gathered on Thursday said Scott’s proposal doesn’t meet the needs of Vermonters who would benefit most. When participation is voluntary, only larger companies are likely to take part, said Michelle Fay, executive director of Voices for Vermont’s Children. She added that low-wage workers often don't have access to such plans.
“Part-time workers, seasonal workers, are typically excluded from private and voluntary programs,” Fay said.
For advocates, the 60 percent in wages offered in the governor’s plan isn’t enough.
“Wage replacement has to be high enough that all workers can afford to take the leave they need,” Fay said. “If you’re already working at or near minimum wage, or below livable wage, you can’t afford to go any period of time on a 60 percent wage replacement.”
Also speaking at the event was Jordan Giaconia, the public policy manager for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. While the group has declared family and medical leave a priority, he said, only half of its 650 members offer the benefit. The other half can’t afford to, Giaconia said.
Giaconia said universal paid leave helps smaller businesses compete successfully for employees. “It creates more predictability, more staff retention, and overall a more just and equitable economy,” he said.
- Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
- Kiah Morris outside the Vermont Statehouse on Thursday
It’s also a human rights issue, said Kiah Morris, executive director of Burlington-based Rights & Democracy, who described caring for her husband through five heart attacks, four strokes and open-heart surgery.
“I have worked with my laptop taking calls from the ER in order to try to make it through the obligations I have within my own workplace; I have had to miss out on opportunities to be with my child and support him through all of these really challenging things that are happening within the family structure,” Morris said.
Morris was one of many people at the event on Thursday who related stories of juggling caregiving and work. Morris commended the governor for recognizing the need for change but said she found his proposal insufficient — and even insulting. Voluntary enrollment won’t work, she said.
“Things sometimes must be codified in order to secure them as human rights,” Morris said. “We can and we should and we must do better for Vermonters.”
Eleven U.S. states require some form of paid family and medical leave, Fay said. It’s typically administered through a payroll tax that is split between the employers and workers — though the employer can elect to pay the whole share.
State Rep. David Durfee (D-Shaftsbury) cautioned the panelists against creating another system that, like health insurance, is provided by employers. When workers leave their jobs, they need to find new health coverage.