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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Lawmakers Advance Bill to Protect Workers' Sick Days

Posted By on Tue, Feb 18, 2014 at 1:01 PM

click to enlarge Members of the Vermont State Employees Association gather in the Vermont House chamber to hear Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor) and Rep. Shap Smith (D-Lamoille-Washington). - CHARLES EICHACKER
  • Charles Eichacker
  • Members of the Vermont State Employees Association gather in the Vermont House chamber to hear Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor) and Rep. Shap Smith (D-Lamoille-Washington).

Sick leave was the topic of the day in the Vermont Statehouse on Tuesday. Not long after a morning session in which the Senate passed a bill prohibiting companies from penalizing workers for taking sick days, the Vermont State Employees  Association kicked off an afternoon of campaigning for a separate bill that would extend sick leave to the 60,000 Vermont employees currently ineligible for it.

The bill that cleared the Senate in the morning, S.213, would ensure that no employer in the state of Vermont could punish employees for making use of their benefits. It first appeared in the Senate Economic Development Committee last month. Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden), the committee’s vice-chair, sponsored the legislation.

In the fall, Baruth was approached by food service workers at the University of Vermont, where he is an English professor. Those employees alleged that Sodexo — the company to which UVM, the Vermont State Colleges and other colleges in Vermont subcontract their dining services — was punishing them for taking sick days. (Getting more attention at the time, the company had also planned to reduce workers' eligibility for benefits to be in compliance with the Affordable Care Act; the company delayed implementation of the plan after school administrations objected.) 

The sick leave bill passed on its third reading almost unanimously, with just one dissenting voice vote. It now moves to the House.

“I was gratified that the Senate signed onto the very basic idea that you can’t, as a company, offer a benefit and then penalize people for taking that benefit,” Baruth said. “It’s a good, basic protection to establish.”

At one point in the discussion, some senators questioned the utility of a law that targets just one company — Sodexo, which currently issues warnings and threats of termination as a worker approaches seven sick days in a year. Baruth responded that it would apply equally to all businesses. 

Sodexo didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The other bill currently moving through the House, H.208, seeks to expand the availability of paid sick leave to Vermonters. On Tuesday, members of the Vermont State Employees’ Association were in the State House campaigning for the bill’s passage as part of their annual “Lobby Day.” 

Gathered in the House chamber in the early afternoon, members of the union heard from Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor) and House Speaker Shap Smith, (D-Lamoille-Washington). Although Smith didn't go into detail about the bill now going through the legislature, he expressed express solidarity with the cause.

"This issue [of paid sick leave] isn't going away," Smith said. "I think it’s a public health issue, in our restaurants, in our businesses. We want to encourage people who are sick to stay home, because you don’t need everyone else in your office to be sick."

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About The Author

Charles Eichacker

Charles Eichacker

Bio:
Charles Eichacker was a staff writer for Seven Days.

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