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Sick leave bill advances in legislature

BRISTOL — A bill that would require many Vermont businesses to allow their employees to accrue paid sick time is advancing in the House, where the measure has unleashed a great deal of debate about the potential impact on businesses.
That bill, H.208, was one of several topics discussed at Monday’s legislative breakfast in Bristol.
The House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs recently voted out, by a 6-1-1 vote, a bill that would allow workers at businesses with more than 5 employees to accrue up to seven earned sick days per year that would not carry over. This would translate into one hour of sick time per 30-hour work week.
Proponents say the bill would provide more job security for workers, while helping to prevent the spread of illnesses in the workplace. Opponents believe the bill would foist another regulation on businesses that continue to struggle in an economy on the rebound. Earned sick leave requirements have been adopted in San Francisco (by ballot initiative) and Connecticut (by legislative action), according to local lawmakers. In San Francisco, workers earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Workers in businesses with 10 or fewer employees earn up to five days per year, while workers at larger businesses earn nine days per year.
The Connecticut law applies to businesses with 50 or more employees, and manufacturing industries are exempt.
Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, was the lone member of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs to vote against the plan. He said he based that vote largely on comments from small business owners who said the new regulation could force them to close.
“The overall impact on business would be negative,” Van Wyck said, adding he believes it might result in fewer business start-ups.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, said she was told that San Francisco business owners had expressed similar trepidations about the new law. But recent reports indicate those business owners are pleased with the law because it results in them not having to train as many replacement workers, according to Ayer, the Senate majority whip.
“You are losing more productive time when you are training a new person” to replace someone who had to leave because of repeated absences, according to Ayer.
Van Wyck said Vermont cannot be compared to an urban center like San Francisco and therefore believes the impact of the new law will be different on local businesses, most of which are quite small.
Bill H.208 is currently being reviewed by the House Appropriations Committee.
Participants at Monday’s breakfast also discussed water quality issues and the state’s ongoing health care reform effort.
Ayer, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, explained lawmakers have the goal of establishing a single-payer health care system by January of 2017, per the terms of Act 48. In the meantime, Vermont has established a federally mandated health care exchange (Vermont Health Connect) that is currently enrolling individuals and small businesses for a variety of insurance plans.
She said Vermont will request a waiver from the federal government to allow it to autonomously use its Medicaid and Medicare money for a single-payer system. Ayer and other state lawmakers believe more efficient use of those funds, coupled with administrative savings and tax assessments, could effectively subsidize an efficient single-payer system.
“Act 48 means every Vermonter will have health care,” said Middlebury resident and longtime single-payer advocate Ellen Oxfeld. She argued that a single-payer system would lead to less billing chores and bureaucracy.
“With one payer, you can control the price,” she said. “There is more price control, and we desperately need price control.”
Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, acknowledged the Legislature will have many details to work out during the next three years before a single-payer system can become a reality. Fisher is chairman of the House Health Care Committee.
“My highest priority is wringing all the savings out of the system that don’t go to anyone’s care,” Fisher said.
But the General Assembly is far from unanimous in its support for a single-payer system.
Van Wyck expressed some of his concerns.
“I don’t share all the rosy predictions people have about health care,” Van Wyck said.
He referenced problems with single-payer systems in such countries as Canada and the United Kingdom, citing specifically longer waiting times for some procedures. Van Wyck predicted many medical specialists would leave the state if a single-payer system is adopted. He said Vermont should instead recruit more insurance companies to serve the population, an action he said would prompt rates to go down.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, said he has heard stories of some individuals finding their premium costs “almost double” through Vermont Health Connect. And he believes some Vermont businesses will seriously consider leaving the state if a single-payer system is established.
“A lot of businesses are very nervous… ” Smith said. “I would urge caution as we move forward.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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