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The snow outside of the State House has melted and spring is upon us. Sadly, this also means the sugaring season has ended as well. If all goes as scheduled, we have less than 5 weeks left in this legislative session to get a LOT of work done! I have two issues that I wanted to talk to you about this week- paid leave and compensation for our legislators.
Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML)
When someone falls ill, or when they are welcoming a new child into this world, they should be able to take the necessary time off without having to worry about the financial consequences. Currently, Vermonters can take unpaid family and medical leave without retribution from their employer, but that is simply unaffordable for most people. All Vermonters should be able to be with family in times of need without worrying about financial security.
Many states have implemented paid family and medical leave to address this economic and social issue, and in Vermont we have a bill that has passed through the House that would:
Provide Vermonters with up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave per 12-month period.
Broaden the definition of who counts as family when determining if leave is protected.
Provide more explicit protections for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to take leave.
Cover two weeks of bereavement leave.
Give employers flexibility by allowing them to opt-out if they provide an equal or better private program.
The Governor has made it clear that he does not support this plan. Instead, he has offered a counter voluntary paid family and medical leave plan which would only provide 60% wage replacement for up to 6 weeks and would require employers to opt-in to the program, meaning that many Vermonters would still be left without PFML insurance. We must make sure that we are not leaving our must vulnerable people without coverage.
I do recognize that there is a large price tag to pass both this bill and the childcare bill that I discussed in a recent newsletter, maybe too much for the state to enact in one year. The Senate’s childcare bill has added a paid family leave provision to help address the need for families to bond with their newborn children.
I’m sure a lot of people roll their eyes when they hear that increasing compensation and benefits for members of the legislature are being considered right now. Do we really need to spend more money to increase the pay for future legislators? It is a fair question. But I strongly feel now, and have for a long time, that in order to expand the opportunity for everyday Vermonters to run and serve, the answer is yes.
Here are some facts about the current state of Legislative compensation:
Legislators do not receive health insurance benefits.
Legislators currently make $743/ week during the 18 weeks that the legislature is in session, or about $13,347/ year.
Assuming that the legislators are working 40 hours/ week during that time (many put in more hours than that), that is equal to earning $18.58/ hour.
Legislators are given no compensation or per diems outside of the legislative session unless attending certain legislative meetings, though they are often working year-round doing constituent services, attending and hosting meetings, preparing for the legislative session, and more.
Legislators are not permitted to take a leave of absence from a part time job in order to serve during the legislative session, meaning that there is no guarantee that they will still have their civilian job after the legislative session ends.
Why does this matter? In an ideal world, the Representatives and Senators serving in our citizen legislature would come from all walks of life- farmers, teachers, nurses, janitors, business owners, and more. However, our current legislative compensation system makes it financially difficult or impossible for a lot of working Vermonters to serve in public office while providing for themselves and their families. This has led to a disproportionate number of wealthy individuals, older individuals, or people with passive income (such as landlords) to be represented in our state’s general assembly.
The makeup of our legislature has a huge impact on what legislation is prioritized and passed and how we implement policies. Our democracy is strongest when all people have access to the halls of power. S.39 would help widen the doors to our building and more fairly compensate our legislators by:
Making them eligible for the State employee’s health insurance plan;
Paying them year-round for their work at a rate of 1/5 of the weekly rate during adjournment;
Reimbursing members for child, dependent, and elder care; and
Allowing members with part-time employment to take unpaid legislative leave without losing their job when the legislature is in session.
Citizens participate to bring action from the grassroots level!
This week, citizens grassroots action has gained momentum with two big rallies at the Statehouse. On Wednesday, hundreds of Vermonters gathered in support of expanding childcare in Vermont at the Courage to Care rally. Investing in our childcare system would bring thousands of people back into the workforce while giving our youth great early education. It was great to see so many educators, parents and supporters gather on the statehouse lawn. This is what democracy looks like!
Friday marked the 7th annual youth Rally for the Planet. In my two decades serving in office, I have never seen younger folks more intensely engaged than now. Our climate is changing rapidly; we can see it in the unseasonably warm weather this week. Our youth know that their future depends both on actions that we take as a individuals in society and through government policies. This is critical for a stable and productive future. It was great to see so many folks engaging in the process and pushing for the changes we need to see!
Lt. Governor David Zuckerman