Paid family and medical leave plan lacks votes to pass Vermont Senate
The paid family and medical leave insurance program that won overwhelming approval in the Vermont House of Representatives earlier this year does not have the votes to pass through the Senate, according to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth.
The decades-long push to establish a universal paid leave program in Vermont appeared to clear to a major hurdle in late March when the bill passed the House with enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto.
Baruth told Vermont Public on Thursday, however, that a program of the size and scope approved by the House doesn’t have the simple majority it needs to clear the Senate, let alone the 20 votes it would need for a veto override.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott has vowed to veto any legislation that relies on an increase in taxes or fees; the House paid leave plan relies on a 0.55% payroll tax to fund the program.
Baruth, a Democrat/Progressive, said individual Senate lawmakers have their own reasons for opposing the paid leave legislation. But he said many of his colleagues feel that if the Legislature is going to proceed with major new investments in child care, then it can’t simultaneously enact a paid leave program.
“We are talking about a transformation of the child care sector, and that’s not going to be cheap,” Baruth said. “And if we’re going to be doing that kind of buildout administratively and financially, I have never believed that it’s possible to do in some ways an even more complex buildout for paid family leave at the same time.”
Baruth said the Senate is also leery of the bureaucratic framework the House would use to administer the paid leave program, which involves dozens of new positions at the Office of the State Treasurer.
Senate proposes parental leave alone
As the 2023 legislative session enters its final two weeks, House lawmakers and paid leave advocates are working to change the voting calculus in the Senate.
On Wednesday afternoon, flanked by about two dozen paid leave supporters, Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, reiterated the necessity of a universal paid leave plan.
The House proposal would cost about $117 million a year. It would provide workers up to 12 weeks off, with 90% wage replacement, to bond with a newborn, care for an ailing family member, or recover from their own illness or injury.
“We know that access to paid leave is a critical issue for families across the state, and we have a responsibility to ensure that every Vermonter has the support that they need to care for themselves and their loved one.,” Kornheiser said. “In a state like Vermont where so many people work in these tiny businesses without HR departments, with a few founders and few employees … it’s particularly important for the state to play a pivotal role in providing benefits that no businesses could provide on their own.”
Fewer than 75% of Vermont workers currently have access to paid leave benefits, Kornheiser said. Ten states and the District of Columbia have enacted universal paid leave laws.
“Vermont has long been a leader on issues of social justice and economic equity,” Kornheiser said. “We have a proud tradition of supporting workers’ rights and protections, but when it comes to paid leave we are falling behind.”
Baruth said the Senate stands ready to compromise. But that compromise — a 12-week parental leave program that would give new parents a $600 weekly grant to bond with a newborn — falls well short of what the House is pursuing.
Senate lawmakers included the parental leave provision in the child care bill they approved in late March. Many House lawmakers, however, say parental leave alone doesn’t address the range of caregiving needs for which workers need paid time off. They also say $600 a week — as opposed to the 90% wage replacement proposed by the House — wouldn’t provide workers enough income to actually take advantage of the benefit.
It's unclear whether House lawmakers would accept the Senate proposal over nothing at all. A group of six House and Senate lawmakers will serve as lead negotiators for both chambers as they try to reach a consensus plan before the Legislature’s scheduled adjournment on May 12.
Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or reach out to reporter Peter Hirschfeld: