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Inconsistencies in leave policies put employees at risk

ADDISON COUNTY — Without a comprehensive, statewide universal paid leave policy, inconsistencies in policies among different Vermont employers leave employees to advocate for themselves.

In Vermont, activists and state representatives said they hope to change that situation by introducing and passing legislation during the Legislature’s next biennium.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act grants employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for children or family members, or to recover themselves. Beyond that floor, family leave is largely decided on a case-by-case basis, with employers and employees working it out together.

Franny Gould knows first-hand the difficulties an employee can face when needing time away from work. She had been a teacher at Mary Hogan Elementary School for less than a year when she needed to request time off for a new baby. She explained how problematic that situation can be.

“I think that that’s something that is important for people to understand that … (employers) can do anything. So the superintendent with the principal has the power to be like, ‘No, you can’t take any leave,’ or ‘No, you can only take the 12 weeks,’ or the power to be like, ‘Sure, you can take the whole year off,’” Gould said.

Legislators have worked to address the issue. In April 2019, Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, sponsored bill H.107, a paid family and medical leave bill that included a bonding leave of 12 weeks and medical leave of eight weeks for all employers. The Democrat-controlled Senate modified the bill and passed it, but Republican Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the bill, and an override lost by one vote.

Then COVID-19 hit.

“I think that COVID really broke open the fact that these programs are really critical,” Scheu said. “They’re critical for employers and employees as well, and it has wreaked havoc on everybody by not having these programs. We can’t find workers. There are people who can’t afford to take time off because they don’t have any programs for them.”

“It (has been) a very different time in America,” said Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham.

Scheu added that prior to the pandemic, legislators, employers and advocates may have understood the issue intellectually, but they didn’t yet feel it viscerally, the way people might now.

In the beginning of the pandemic, Vermont workers used unemployment insurance to address the lack of paid leave, according to the legislators.

LACK OF FUNDING

Meanwhile, small businesses have found the lack of government support for paid leave particularly problematic. Main Street Alliance, which organizes small businesses around issues pertinent to them, has advocated for a universal, publicly funded policy of family paid leave in order to level the playing field.

The organization worked with Vermont Business for Social Responsibility to pull together more than 100 small businesses and nonprofits, and over 500 workers, to advocate for a COVID-19 paid leave program in bill S.11, which successfully passed the Vermont Legislature this past biennium.

The program earmarked almost $15.2 million to be used between July 1 and June 30, 2023, for up to 40 hours of 100% wage replacement of up to $21.25 an hour per employee. It can be used for a range of reasons, including exposure to COVID-19 and loss of school or childcare.

Employers can apply quarterly for the program, which will be run by the Department of Financial Regulation, though state director Morgan Nichols is still awaiting guidance on how employers can apply.

In the same biennium, Scheu and Kornheiser co-sponsored an even more comprehensive paid leave bill that was signed onto by almost everyone in the Democratic and Progressive caucuses, but it hinged on a federal bill that failed to clear the U.S. Senate. The federal bill would have supplied funding for the paid coverage, the stumbling block that keeps states and many individual employers from implementing generous policies.

As for Gould’s fate, she was initially granted 12 weeks leave, despite not technically being eligible as she had not yet worked there a full year. Still, she felt she needed more than 12 weeks. She recalled working in New York City after her first pregnancy, all while having horrible postpartum depression and a child still in the intensive care unit.

“I was in charge of 18 preschoolers by myself and it’s just, it’s straight-up dangerous to have somebody who’s so sleep-deprived and just feeling so awful, to be in charge of little kids,” Gould said.

So, Gould kept pushing. Eventually, she met with the Addison Central School District superintendent and developed a plan to split the year with her husband, Adam, who is also a teacher at the school.

“I was really nervous to go to that meeting with him, but it wasn’t sitting right with me, I was feeling so depressed, going back. I was (thinking) I’m probably not going to look back and wish I hadn’t advocated for myself and my child,” she said.

Gould knew many other employees, particularly if they were a first-time mother or weren’t sure how their employer would react, might not have the ability to self-advocate the way she did. If Gould hadn’t succeeded in this pursuit, she said, she probably would’ve just gone back to work. Like many teachers, Gould needed to support her family, and she couldn’t risk losing her new job.

OTHER STRUGGLES

Meanwhile, the hospitality industry, in particular, struggles with leave policies.

Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, who owns 3 Squares Café in the Little City, recounts years of watching people make sacrifices between pay and a family.

“It’s like absolutely insane. You’re really picking winners and losers financially and sociologically with how people can family-plan based on whether or not they have the luxury or independent wealth to actually nurture and begin to cultivate a family,” he said.

Phil Summers, executive director of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, said small businesses in general, which are critical to Vermont’s economy, don’t necessarily have the financial stability to provide the leave policies necessary, and at the same time are hit much harder by the loss of employees.

The largest employer in the county, Middlebury College, has a comprehensive policy outlined on its website. The college allows staff up to six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. For faculty, however, there is room for different paths.

Faculty members who are scheduled to teach through a term, whether or not they are the birth mother, are provided with six weeks of paid leave. The birth mother gets an additional four- to six weeks of short-term disability pay, at a 60% rate. Beyond that, there are different options faculty can choose, some paid and some not.

“We have a generous combined time off policy and some employees opt to use their combined time off to supplement parental leave in different ways,” said Caitlin Goss, vice president for human resources and chief people officer at the college.

In a tough labor market, Birong said paid leave policies are critical to growing Vermont’s workforce and attracting people from outside the state.

“If we’re gonna promote supporting families and encouraging younger people to move, live, and stay in Vermont, then you gotta talk the talk. And family leave talks the talk,” said Birong.

According to some business owners, such policies are also important for gender equality and advancement in the workplace, especially given the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade.

“This could not be a more important moment to recognize that paid family leave is a woman’s health initiative just as much as it is any other type of economic piece,” said Vergennes resident Sas Stewart, owner of Adventure Dinner. “If there’s ever been a time where we need to more closely come back and give care to the women in our lives, this is the moment.”

Scheu and Kornheiser are eager to keep fighting during the upcoming session of the Legislature.

“This next biennium, we’re not going to be waiting anymore,” said Kornheiser.

Still, they will need to grapple with pushback surrounding how to pay for such programs, and debates about how to administer them.

“I think the conversation will likely be easier this time around, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy,” said Kornheiser.

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