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Washington-Chittenden: Waterbury, Bolton, Huntington & Buels Gore

Approaching the Quarter Pole on Paid Family Leave

January 18, 2020


On Wednesday, January 15, House and Senate members in the Vermont Legislature signed a report from the conference committee on H.107, our Paid Family Medical Leave Insurance Act. On Friday, January 17, the Senate passed the bill 20-9-1, and on this coming Thursday, January 23, the House will vote on it. If it passes, it will go to the Governor. He will have 5 days to sign it, let it go into law without his signature, or veto it. As I said in the title to the piece, we are at the quarter pole–almost home but still a ways to go before we get there.

This bill, if enacted, will provide access to a number of family-friendly benefits for working Vermonters, families who would like to have children and those that need to provide care for aging or ill family members. It also strengthens the existing Vermont Family and Medical Leave Act, which is unpaid (and has existed since the 1990s) and provides some job protections for those who take the leave.

Paid leave for bonding (or maternity/paternity) will require a small payroll tax to purchase the premium of .20% — or 2 cents for every $10 of income — and because leave for a personal injury is a voluntary part of the program (for now), opting in would cost less than 4 cents more for every $10 of income. This payroll tax would be taken from every employee in Vermont on income up to approximately $140,000, just like Social Security taxes, which are far higher than this one.

There are provisions in the bill that determine the nuances of that leave taken — for foster children, siblings, grandchildren — and the rates of wage replacement. For instance, if you make $27,000 a year (or about $15 an hour), you will receive 90% of your income for the weeks you need it. From that $27,000 salary on up, you would receive the 90% for the first $27,000, and then 55% of your income until the benefit reaches $964 (if your salary is approximately $73,000). Salaries above that would receive the capped benefit of $964 as wage replacement.

This technical discussion of some of the nuts and bolts of H.107 obscures the reason we have worked so long on this bill — families need support during times of medical crisis (illness, death or injury), and during times of joy (childbirth). This bill takes the stand in saying that Vermonters should not have to suffer the financial stress of the loss of income or the fear that they will lose employment during these times, and we feel that Vermonters who are able to use this benefit become better and healthier parents, and better and healthier employees. From there, we can imagine workplaces where loyal employees are more efficient, leading to less turnover and better long-term health and economic outcomes for both the employers and employees. We also know it takes two to tango, and we expect employers to embrace this program as a economic driver to attract younger people and younger Vermonters to their companies.

If Governor Scott vetoes this bill, thereby going against the will and wishes of the vast majority of Vermonters who support this bill, both in surveys and through the votes of their elected representatives, we will be forced to try to override his veto. And while it may appear that we have enough representatives to do this, it is not clear that we yet have the votes. Please reach out to your representatives and ask to support it, and if they say no, ask them why.

These benefits will go a long way to helping Vermonters deal with the issues that can slow them down, and I think it will show that we can build a compassionate policy that can help make it so. In conjunction with this bill, we will be pressing forward this coming week for an increase in the minimum wage.

Shakespeare Knew PTSD

April 23, 2019


The following is my annual “devotional” delivered before the Vermont House of Representatives. I always focus on elements of William Shakespeare’s language and observations and how they relate to the issues we deal with every day in our work. I came upon this monologue several years ago, and when I researched it, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of writing that had been done on it, noticing that Shakespeare was defining what we now call PTSD, hundreds of years before we had that name for it. Knowing that Shakespeare and, presumably, others of the time, described this illness in this way is, as discussed below, strangely gratifying.

Testimony two weeks ago in your House General, Housing and Military Affairs committee shook many of us to the bone, and gave focus to one of the great unknowns about the genius of William Shakespeare.

Today is considered Shakespeare’s birthday, depending on which source you read, and it may have been the day he died, 52 years later, in 1616, 403 years ago. During the years I have stood here, sharing a devotional with him, I have done so in the spirit of his poetry, and of the notion, in agreement with Harold Bloom, that Shakespeare created the artistic view of the complete human being, and, in the face of his somewhat indecipherable but beautiful words, transcribed human feelings in a way that teaches us — teaches me — that our emotional evolution is perhaps one of the slowest things we know; and that rather than imagine that Shakespeare “invented” the human in art, as Bloom describes, he perhaps merely captured, poetically, the unchanging human condition.

It’s easy to say that we’ve changed so much since the late 16th or early 17th century, and that’s true. We no longer die quite so often from plague. We have running water and we know how to get rid of human waste safely. We have electricity and phones that are computers that fit in our pocket and ways of making the whole world smaller that were barely if ever considered 400 years ago.

But when we quickly think of 400 years ago, we think people were…what? Ignorant? Not as smart as us? Like us but not as complex? But we know different. And what I love about Shakespeare is that we haven’t really changed, at least not as much as we would like to believe, and this lack of change actually grounds me in my work here in the building.

The testimony we heard was about burn pits in the Middle East, and how when we have gone overseas and built tremendous camp cities in deserts (or, for that matter, in jungles in Vietnam), we have solved for so much except for waste. Burn pits are a normal part of life in these camp cities, but they are large—some the size of three contiguous football fields—and they distribute dust and chemicals and acrid smoke across the horizon, just as it did in America before we learned how to better incinerate, dispose of, or recycle trash.

And we heard about the illnesses that we think are caused by these burn pits, and how some of our bravest servicemembers are succumbing to diseases they shouldn’t have developed in the first place. And I felt some kind of deep anger — the kind that I don’t usually exhibit, not when I am hearing testimony, and to relieve myself of that, I thought and I thought and I sought some kind of cultural solace, a lifeboat really, that would bring me back to the present, and temper my anger, if only by an acknowledgment through the art that we are who we are, for better and for worse.

And the text I grabbed on to was this one, from Henry IV, about the character Hotspur. Hotspur was a hothead. A contemporary of Prince Hal, who would become Henry the Fifth. Hotspur was bent out of shape because his family helped Henry IV take the crown from Richard II. Rather than share the spoils, Henry IV conspired to keep Hotspur’s family, the Percys, on the outside. Hotspur was a soldier, and was ready to go to war to usurp Henry. And as he prepared for the battle, he was confronted by his wife.

All of this can be considered standard Shakespearean fare — Wars and Kings and Hotheads and Wars and Kings! — but listen to what Kate said to him. Listen, and think of the men and women who fight wars everyday in our name, and are told to exist under conditions that, if examined, would prove cruel to just about anyone else.

She says:

Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure and thy golden sleep?

She says:

Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,
And start so often when thou sit’st alone?
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks;
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy?

What does this sound like to you? We have heard this over the years. She says:

In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch’d,
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars;
Speak terms of manage [horsemanship] to thy bounding steed;
Cry ‘Courage! to the field!’ And thou hast talk’d
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners’ ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.

We called it shell shock, or battle fatigue, and now call it PTSD. She says:

Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus hath so bestirr’d thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream;
And in thy face strange motions have appear’d,
Such as we see when men restrain their breath
On some great sudden hest. O, what portents are these?

We know that men and women change when they go to war, and we know that part of what they lose, at least for a time, is their humanity, their essential common connection with others. It has to be so, and it saddens me. And when I hear of the things we do in the name of war, and the things we don’t do in the name of our veterans, it seems all the same. And yet we can feel revitalized by the knowledge that it’s a deep problem of human society and we’re not somehow lesser for failing to fix it. That we grapple with the same ideals, the same problems, the same proclivities as our parents, our grandparents and so on back in time until we reach…when?

What I know is this: a human will always fight when they feel oppressed, or if they feel one down, or backed in a corner. Sometimes we will stop and give them a hand up. Sometimes we’ll blame them for their predicament. But what I find promising in our work is that we tend to ask what people need, and we are responsible for helping those we can help. So as we head to the endgame of the session, let us remember that what we do here is the best work there is, and when we do it right, no one will be happy, and no one will be hurt and, somehow, we will all be the better for it.

It’s Time for Family and Medical Leave Insurance

April 10, 2019


H.107, an act relating to family and medical leave insurance passed the Vermont House of Representatives by a vote of 92-52. This affordable program (87 cents a day if you make $55k a year! 34 cents a year if you make $21k!) will give Vermonters the peace of mind that if they have a personal medical crisis, or if they need to take time from work to take care of their elderly parents, or to bond with their newborn child.

The following is my portion of the floor report on H.107 from Thursday, April 4. Also presenting was Rep. Robin Scheu for our Ways & Means Committee, and Rep. Mary Hooper, for Appropriations. If enacted, the benefits offered in the plan would be amongst the most generous in the country. The bill now resides in the Senate, and there are many miles to go before a finished version emerges from that body. You can find the bill as passed the House here ,and a fiscal note prepared by our Joint Fiscal Office here.

Every day, as we do our work in this building, we hear echoes of why we do our work. We want our policies to promote fairness, fairness between men and women, young and old, employer and employee, and between the rich and poor. We want our students educated and we want our elders and most vulnerable to live a life of respect and dignity. We want our policies to protect the environment, to protect the most vulnerable, and to protect our rights. We work to find ways to provide Vermonters of all stripes the tools to succeed. We want to pay our bills on time, live up to our commitments and we want to be ready for any crisis that arises. We don’t create jobs in our work, but we talk about that need all the time, and we try to shape policies that allow businesses to grow responsibly, and in ways that give them a chance to create well-paying jobs with the kind of benefits that Vermonters deserve. We develop benchmarks that tell us what a livable wage is, and we try to ensure that we are living in a place where we can grow a family, a healthy crop of food and lives worth living.

We often measure these things with numbers — what’s the return on investment, what’s the cost to the employer, to the taxpayer, to the property owner, what is the risk, what will the near future hold? We try to measure what we know against what we don’t, what the past has told us to our face and what the future whispers in our ear. We try to listen to our constituents, we try to listen to our gut, and we try to listen to common sense.

As we all do our work in this building, we sometimes lose track of why a bill was so attractive when it was introduced, when by the time we reach this point in the process the bill has been picked at, dissected, and put back together, a little bruised but, in the case of H.107, in better shape than when it started.

We think it is a policy that will give all Vermonters a fair shot at living a life of dignity and respect. No one policy can do it all, but some policy initiatives, because they are so powerful and so universal, point the way toward achieving our goals as a state will be.

H.107, an act relating to family medical leave insurance, is one of those policies.

The United States is one of only two countries that does not offer, as a response to basic human needs, a paid family medical leave insurance program that is universal. H.107 seeks to remedy that in Vermont.

We want affordable housing, and decent jobs that pay enough to make ends meet, that allow us to eat well enough to maintain our health, and we especially want young families to thrive by offering decent jobs, and, if they wish to grow a family, the childcare necessary, as well as the time to bond with their baby, or to take care of their family, or themselves, when crises arise. We want to welcome the Vermonters who will be the next generation, and to show that through the ice and snow and cold, through the jobs that sometimes don’t pay quite enough, through the policies that we develop in this building, that being in Vermont is worthwhile because we’re making a commitment to develop programs that will keep you here.

There are many facets to the diamond that is Vermont, and H.107 proposes a Family Medical Leave Insurance program that can be a keystone to our commitments to give all Vermonters a fair shot.

A universal family and medical leave insurance program will help ensure that our families and communities are healthy. Providing Vermonters with the ability to take time to care for themselves and their loved ones will support people when they need it most and build a foundation for future generations to thrive.

A universal family and medical leave insurance program is part of building a strong small business economy and a healthy workforce. This program will help attract more young professionals to the state, encourage young people and families to stay in Vermont, and level the playing field for small businesses.

This policy was fashioned on the reality that only 15% of Vermonters have access to any kind of family and medical leave insurance, and some of those that do testified that the leave offered wasn’t substantial enough to take any meaningful time off to do the things we know will help make healthy families — bonding and care for self when injured — and will save employees, employers and the state money across many categories, from health insurance to child care for infants. Imagine a family that can take time to be with their baby, together, and not have to worry about the rent or the mortgage or the bills at a time when they should be rejoicing in their new family. Imagine a family that can take time to care for an aging parent as dementia slips in, or when they get sick and need help transitioning from their home to another facility that may promise them safety and dignity.

This policy wouldn’t move forward without support, and this concept has it. According to the major study recently done for Vermont by IMPAQ, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and the UVM Center for Rural Studies, workers near the poverty threshold, low income workers and workers in smaller businesses would have access to a benefit they can only wish for now. It found over 70% of Vermonters, when told what the program entailed, supported the program, and that such a program could produce between $2.5 and $4 Million in annual savings, including savings in childcare costs for parents of newborns or a sick child, savings because the babies are healthy and have normal birthweights, savings in reduced public assistance among working women and a small town’s worth of Vermonters with improved financial security by keeping them above the state’s poverty threshold.

When we want to say we take care of young families, we want to be able to say that we can offer some solutions to them by reducing the stress and strain of not receiving a paycheck, by reducing the stress and strain on not finding or affording childcare, and by using a focus on bonding as a vaccine to help build strong families and communities.

I’ve talked about bonding, and some about family care — we, like most of the country, are seeing the graying of the Baby Boom generation. Some of us are caring for our parents, and we’ll soon be the ones needing care. As I look around this Chamber, Madame Speaker, I think of the many conversations I’ve had with colleagues as we share stories of care for our partners, for our parents.

The other key component of the bill is the inclusion of insurance for oneself, sometimes called Temporary Disability Insurance. This is used if you get injured outside of work, and need to take time to heal. It could be used if your pregnancy requires you to stay home prior to the birth of your child. It could be used if you twist your knee when mowing the lawn, or fall on the ice walking to the bus stop.

H.107 is a program that keeps families together, especially those families that our policy work targets most — those with low wages, or in need of affordable childcare, or who are food insecure or at risk of homelessness. And while this program can offer Vermonters who make up to $116,000 a wage replacement of 60% or more, the focus of this legislation is to provide access to this benefit to those Vermonters who struggle the most, those who cannot afford to take unpaid leave, or even leave with a lesser benefit. This program allows all working Vermonters the opportunity to access a benefit that only a few lucky people get now.

A few numbers:

Vermont’s livable wage, a phrase you’ll hear in the next phase of the floor report, is, for an individual who lives in a two person household without children, $13.34 an hour. 40 hours of work at that wage provides a gross wage of $27,000. Madame Speaker, there were over 144,000 income tax filers last year who made $27K or less. There were over 75,000 more that made incomes up to $47,000, which is $10K less than the median income. Another 52,000 make up to $70K and another 57,000 make up to $114,000. The Vermonters who will benefit most are those at the lowest ends of the economic ladder, the ones who are closest to the edge. And add that up: 330,000 out of 380,000 income tax payers would be eligible to receive the most of this benefit. The vast majority of working Vermonters will get an essential benefit – one that helps them remain in the workforce and care for their families – through this shared program.

And take a moment to acknowledge, 229,000 Vermont income tax filers make less than $47,000 a year. That’s astonishing, and it should give us all pause as we do our work.

Poverty is a brutal thing. It is hard work. Making rent and feeding your children and finding childcare and trying to get ahead is exhausting work, and if one thing goes wrong — a child gets sick, a car fails, a rent check is missed — the cycle of stress starts again, and the programs the state tries so hard to fund and staff to help alleviate this cycle get pushed to the limit. H.107 would help, in times of a health crisis, prevent some of these things from happening, and it can do it on pennies a day for each qualified employee.

Pennies a day. As little as 34 (pennies?) of them for minimum wage workers, 48 of them for those who make about $32k a year, or $15/hour, and 87 of them for who make the median income, or $57K year. When I ask Vermonters – at the coffeeshop, on the street, at community meetings and potluck suppers – if they would pay 87 cents a day to have access to this benefit, to have coverage to care for their mother, or their son, or themselves – every one says yes.

We crafted a family medical leave insurance program that is universal — meaning that everyone pays in for the benefit of all — will give our small businesses something they crave — a level playing field — and will help them compete in the marketplace. We received testimony that a universal program is the most stable and risk-free, financially, and we know that by providing access to everyone, from the poorest Vermonter on up the economic ladder, we promote the equity we seek to achieve in all the legislation we pass in this body.

Let us remember, and celebrate, that the majority of Vermont businesses are considered small and employ a significant portion of the 380,000 income taxpayers in our state. 90% of our businesses have fewer than 20 employees and employ 28% of the workforce. 98.5% of our businesses have fewer than 100 employees and employ 62% of the workforce. And no matter how generous individual businesses are on their own, Vermont can’t move forward one business at a time. What about all of the employees who don’t get to work for those businesses? And what about all the businesses who, try as they might, cannot offer this benefit because their margins don’t allow for it. We often say it is not our job to pick winners and losers – in this equation, businesses and employees win.

Our whole state benefits when the program is universal, with equal investment and equal access to everyone. That’s why Vermont small businesses in all four corners of the state, from St. Johnsbury to Bennington, from Brattleboro to St. Albans, overwhelmingly support the creation of a strong, universal family and medical leave insurance program. That’s why creating benefit structures that are universal and portable – like family and medical leave insurance – will not only help support the workforce, but small businesses and entrepreneurs as they start and grow their businesses. And that’s why we crafted H.107 in this way.