Rep. Pajala: Revamped Paid Family Leave flawed

By Rep. Kelly Pajala

Two weeks in and the legislative session’s fever pitch is rising. With campaigning for re-election on everyone’s mind, political optics are fueling the fires as the Paid Family Leave and Minimum Wage bills are heading back to the Vermont State House floor.

Although Week 1 was filled with speeches calling for civility and cooperation across the aisle, the latter of the two seems to be absent thus far.

The position of the legislature that Paid Family Leave be funded by a mandatory payroll tax versus Gov. Phil Scott’s voluntary participation plan has not changed since last session. Negotiations for what the legislature’s mandatory PFL plan will consist of were done knowing full well that the governor will veto it, so the Democratic majority only had to cooperate with itself to come up with something that will have the votes for a veto override. In so doing, legislators have taken what could be a robust plan and created something with significant structural flaws.

Aside from the fact that politics are being put above efforts to create good policy, my three main concerns with the current Paid Family Leave bill are:

  • having a publicly funded program administered by a private, for-profit company;
  • the mandatory wage withholding leaves some wage earners paying in who will not be eligible for benefits; and
  • there was no attempt to make self-employed Vermonters eligible.

If the program is going to be a public benefit, the public’s money should not be handed over to a for-profit company. (Keep in mind the challenges of health insurance straddling a public/private line.) This bill creates mandatory participation paid through a payroll withholding directly from an employees’ wages.

Even though the minimum eligibility level for benefits was dropped to $7,400, it did not solve the problem of having the lowest wage earners paying into a mandatory insurance program that they can’t receive benefits from. Lastly, there is still a study on how to include self-employed Vermonters in PFL but that does not help creative, innovative self-employed people who are equally deserving of a safety net. This mandatory plan is both inclusive of wage earners who can’t access benefits and excludes the self-employed.

I am still holding out hope that the results of the Minimum Wage Conference Committee will address the problem of costs to Vermont for healthcare workers who are partially paid through Medicaid. If you would like to look at the information gathered in an effort to understand those costs it can be found by clicking here. The information is certainly helpful but far from complete and I am not yet convinced that there is a suitable solution on the table. Time will tell.

In the midst of all of this political wrangling there is other work getting done. In the House Human Services Committee we have already begun work on H. 424 – An act relating to the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, H. 663 – An act relating to expanding access to contraceptives and H. 572 – An act relating to the Maternal Mortality Review Panel. We also held a public hearing on Homelessness Awareness Day, heard a report on one Pre-kindergarten Education Study, had an update on lead testing in drinking water at schools and childcare centers and heard an overview of the current state and proposed redesign of Developmental Services in Vermont.

Other topics getting significant attention at the moment include a tax and regulate system for recreational cannabis products, Act 250 reform and climate change policy but it is far too early in the session to have any definitive answers on what will make it to the floor of the House. That being said, I am always reading legislation with an eye toward its impact on rural communities and the most vulnerable Vermonters.

Please contact me if you have any thoughts or concerns:

Rep. Pajala is an Independent representing the Windham-Bennington-Windsor District.

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  1. Doug Friant says:

    Thanks Kelly – I agree with you 100%. The law needs to be fair to all and benefit all who pay into it. It should also be voluntary. While raising taxes may seem like a good idea, making Vermont a high tax state is driving residents away long term.