Vt. Senate approves paid family leave; veto expected

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) The Vermont Senate Wednesday approved a paid family leave bill, but many concerns remain about who will actually benefit, and how much it will cost. It also faces an almost certain veto.

"Just kind of leaving my husband with a five-week old baby and saying, 'See ya, have a good day, hope it all goes well.' That was definitely an adjustment for him," said Anne McLuckie, who had a baby last year. She returned to work at Red Hen Bakery after five weeks. The stress of being a new mom competing with financial needs.

Lawmakers want to help young families find better balance. The Senate has approved a payroll tax of .136-percent on all working Vermonters to pay for family time off needs.

"This is a very inexpensive mechanism of social insurance to help cover people for six to 12 weeks when they need it the most," said Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden County.

Under the proposed bill, a new parent can take 12 weeks for a new child, or a combined 12 weeks for a couple. Six weeks is available to care for a sick relative. In both cases, the insurance fund will pay 70-percent of wages, up to $1,040 per week. Supporters say the new tax is worth it.

"For the average Vermonter who is at the middle income range -- a middle income person in Vermont -- it would cost four-cents an hour," Sirotkin said.

But for some it's a question of priorities. Senate Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia County, says the state has already short-changed higher ed and safety net programs, including child care assistance. "I could not say that that was my first priority and I used examples of where we have obligations that we have not fulfilled our promises," she said. Kitchel worries the benefit will be used by higher-paid Vermonters, because low-income workers won't find the 70-percent wage replacement sufficient. "Who could not say that family leave is not a benefit. But my concern is with a new program and a decision to take $20 million from workers -- it's a tax on workers."

Mcluckie says the program would have eased her stress. "You know things are hard enough with a new baby, and having financial stress on top of it just felt very overwhelming at times," she said.

The House approved it's own paid family leave bill last year. Now it heads to conference committee, but it's not a done deal. The plan violates Gov. Phil Scott's pledge to not raise taxes and he's expected to veto it. If he does the House does not appear to have enough votes to overide it.