Kunin Pushes for Paid Sick Leave Legislation

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Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin publicly endorses a bill that would guarantee paid sick days for Vermont workers Tuesday at the Statehouse. (AP/Toby Talbot)

By Kirk Carapezza

Former Governor Madeleine Kunin is throwing her political capital behind a bill that would create paid leave in Vermont. She calls the policy a win-win for both employers and workers.

When she was governor, Kunin says she didn’t seek similar legislation because family-work policies were not part of the legislative conversation at the time.

“I don’t recall it coming up, unfortunately,” Kunin said on Tuesday. “I wish it had.”

The bill in the House would guarantee paid health care days for Vermont workers. Under the proposal, workers would gain one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked up to 56 total hours – or seven days – each year.

“This is not the polarizing debate that it is sometimes made out to be,” Kunin told reporters. “What unites people on this bill is it’s about families.”

Kunin said the knee-jerk reaction by some in the business community is that such a measure is bad for bottom lines, but the three-term governor, who once worked as a waitress to pay her expenses, argues businesses that adopt compassionate benefits will attract the most dedicated workers.

“This kind of legislation retains people who run ski lifts, people who wait on you, and you know the difference between a good worker and a mediocre worker,” Kunin said. “Talent, skill, work-ethic – those are the important things for the Vermont and national economy and this piece of legislation fortifies that.”

The national Chamber of Commerce has opposed similar measures, saying they would make businesses less competitive and lead to severe disruptions and increased unscheduled absences.

But Burlington Representative Jill Krowinski, the lead sponsor of the bill, argues workers without paid leave can’t afford to take an unpaid day when they get sick.

“Working families should not have to choose between one’s health, the health of their children or relatives and a day of pay,” Krowinski said. “We’re still operating under a system that assumes that one parent will stay home while the other parent goes to work.”

Across the country, cities and states have been adopting earned sick day policies to help improve public health and to bolster the economy. In 2011, Connecticut passed the first statewide paid leave law that requires up to five sick days per year. San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Seattle have approved city-wide laws. Former President Bill Clinton is pushing for paid sick leave legislation at the national level.

Supporters in Vermont like Rene Lemay are concerned they won’t be able to pay their bills if they miss work. Lemay, 32, has worked in the hospitality industry for 17 years. For her, sick days leave her with little money to fall back on.

“Last month, I came down with a sickness unexpectedly and I was out of work for a week,” said Lemay, who is raising her daughter as a single mother in Hinesburg. “Thankfully it was only a week because if it was any longer than that I’m not really sure what I would do.”

Read the bill here.