Not all Vermonters protected from losing jobs over child care

Published: May. 21, 2020 at 5:01 AM EDT
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While some Vermonters are protected under a federal act, others are losing their jobs because they can't get child care.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, or FFCRA, was put forth by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in March. It protects employees from being laid off because they need to stay home with their children, but that rule only applies to businesses with fewer than 500 employees.

Hinesburg employment lawyer Beth Danon says when the law was approved that loophole concerned her.

"My first reaction was, why does this only apply to employers who have 500 or less employees? That made no sense to me. And I thought, this is going to be bad," she said.

Bad, she says, because big companies don't have to abide by the paid leave and job protections provided by the act.

"I understand that the reason why they didn't is because they thought big employers would do the right thing, and we're finding out that they're not," said Danon.

As Vermont's economy reopens, Danon says this problem has become increasingly apparent. She's received countless calls from workers who say their employer has requested they return to in-person work by a certain date. When the workers say they can't because they don't have access to child care, the employer asks them to resign.

Danon says big businesses are taking advantage of the law's exemption.

"This loophole, if you will, in the federal law is going to adversely affect more women than men because more women are single parents," she said.

She says it's the same story every time. A story a couple of Vermont Goodwill employees brought to WCAX News. The workers, who asked to remain anonymous, say they're both moms with school-aged children who've worked with the company for years. In March, they were two of more than 1,000 furloughed employees Goodwill admits were forced to file for unemployment. It was a shock to the women when their employer told them they'd have to resign if they didn't resume in-person work when the local stores opened back up last week.

We asked Goodwill Northern New England, which employs 1,800 people in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, why leaders were laying off employees. President and CEO Rich Cantz responded in a statement that the company is working with its employees to see what options are available to them.

"Our immediate goal is to provide adequate staffing as we reopen, provide a safe workplace for our teammates and community members and begin to be able to support our programs once again," Cantz said.

"You would think the larger businesses who have deeper pockets would have the compassion and empathy to help their employees rather than coerce them like this. It's not fair," said Danon.

Gov. Phil Scott and Dept. of Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington have said during recent press conferences workers who don't have access to child care right now can't be fired from their jobs. When we asked about this exemption, the administration responded in an email saying the governor is still looking into options for additional protections that could be implemented at the state level and wants to stress no one should lose their job for doing what's necessary to help fight COVID-19 and keep Vermonters safe.

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