Minimum wage, paid leave vital to families

Frustratingly, two bills I worked on in committee did not make it to the finish line this spring in Montpelier: increasing the minimum wage and establishing a paid family and medical leave insurance program.They were held up in negotiations between the House and Senate in the final weeks of the session. However, I believe better legislation will result when we return to work in January. There were too many issues unresolved. 

Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour over a five-year period was seen as too fast for some, and not soon enough for others. Market forces in some urban areas had already accelerated wages above the prevailing $10.78, but small rural businesses worried about any further increases. 

Home health agencies, nursing homes, residential care homes, assisted living residences and adult day care agencies reported that, without additional Medicaid support, increasing the minimum wage would be onerous. Another factor, raising wages incrementally without adjusting eligibility for governmental supplemental programs, could create a “benefits cliff,” leaving some folks worse off short-term. 

Further consideration has to be given to how tipped employees, students and agricultural workers are compensated. As well, Vermont’s employment statutes need to be modernized to eliminate out-of-date and obsolete provisions, particularly regarding people with disabilities.

Complexity also played out in developing a paid family and medical leave insurance program. The governor’s voluntary program was introduced but not taken up, because a different bill was already in process in the House. At the session’s end, there remained significant differences between the House and Senate versions on this issue.  

Should the program be funded jointly by employers and employees? Both the House and Senate left that up to the discretion of employers. How much time is adequate for family bonding? The House thought 12 weeks for each parent for a total of 24; the Senate landed on 16 weeks shared between parents. 

Length of allowable family care time of up to eight weeks was in both versions, but differences for personal medical leave were eight weeks in the House, while the Senate provided up to six weeks of personal medical leave only to employees who elected to obtain coverage by paying an additional premium. Both chambers agreed that cumulative time off should be capped at 12 weeks in any given year.

Increasing the minimum wage and a paid family and medical leave insurance program are both essential to the viability of Vermont’s future, particularly in attracting young families and a more vibrant workforce.  Low-income Vermonters desperately need a raise. Forty-one percent of minimum-wage workers are considered “head of the household” and the majority of them are women. Too many scramble, juggling multiple part-time jobs to adequately feed, clothe and shelter themselves and their families. Increasing salaries is a shrewd investment, ultimately decreasing the costs of the social safety net long-term; not to be discounted is the additional consumer spending in local communities. 

Families should not have to suffer economic and professional hardships while raising children. Both parents deserve adequate bonding time with new ones. And baby boomers, too, need a break, struggling to care for themselves, ailing parents, and grandchildren in crisis. Few mind paying for Social Security and for disability, health, or unemployment insurance; another small premium to ensure paid family and medical leave seems like a wise investment each of us and employers can make. Happy and healthy employees tend to remain loyal, and retention is more cost-effective than turnover.

All four of your South Burlington state representatives — Ann Pugh, Maida Townsend, Martin LaLonde and I — will be at the upcoming Quadra concert in Veterans Memorial Park on Aug. 15. Look for the “Ask Your Legislators” sign. Stop by and let us know your thoughts.