A new statewide campaign is renewing the fight for paid leave.

On Thursday, the Vermont FaMLI (Family and Medical Leave Insurance) Coalition — a group of more than 25 organizations, including the Vermont Main Street Alliance, Vermont Commission on Women, and Voices for Vermont’s Children — launched its “We Believe in Paid Leave” campaign, a video series that highlights stories of small-business owners around the state who support a national paid family and medical leave program.

The effort comes a year and a half after Gov. Phil Scott vetoed legislation that would have created a statewide paid leave program through a $29 million mandatory payroll tax to be paid by employers and workers.

That plan would have provided Vermonters with up to 12 weeks off to care for a newborn child and up to eight weeks off to care for a sick family member.

Now, in light of the pandemic, advocates are once again calling for action.

The group made its case at a Thursday news conference held on Zoom, reporting that only 19% of Vermont workers have access to paid family leave and only 40% have employer-provided personal medical leave.

Akshata Nayak, a small-business owner from Jericho, said paid leave would be a game-changer for sole-proprietors like herself, as well as the many frontline workers who put their health and safety at risk during the pandemic.

“We need a national solution that will provide for all workers, all small businesses; provide enough compensation and time for it to be effective (and) provide for all kinds of leave, including personal, family and parental leave,” she said.

Some Vermont lawmakers have also rallied around the issue, with several joining on Thursdays’ call.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the pandemic demonstrated there was an economic argument to be made for creating a universal paid leave program, noting the struggles families endured while balancing work and home life during such a difficult time.

He argued, however, that it wasn’t just about the economy.

“It’s about what kind of society do we want to live in? And what kind of social insurance programs do we want to have that apply to everybody? Because all of us, at some time, are going to need to take time off,” he said. “This is the work that we should be doing, creating stability and security for families.”

Welch alluded to President Joe Biden’s American Family Plan, which includes a paid family and medical leave program that would provide workers with 12 weeks off and up to $4,000 a month.

He urged advocates to continue their efforts.

“Now, in order for us to have the federal government act, the leadership at the state level has been essential. The work that you're doing — making visible the reality of each of those workers who testified … making visible the wholeness of their life, making visible the love they have that motivates them to want to get this time to take care of a loved one, not to get time off,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray shared her personal experience of using up all her accrued vacation and sick days when her mother was hospitalized in 2019. The experience made her wonder how long she would be able to sustain herself financially if she had to take unpaid leave.

“My story is not unique. Long before the pandemic, Vermont women and caregivers were finding themselves in the position of having to make tough decisions between caring for loved ones and paying the bills,” she said.

Gray cited the National Women's Law Center, which reported that between February 2020 and February 2021, more than 2.3 million women left the workforce in the U.S.

She also pointed to Vermont’s “persistent demographic crisis” of a shrinking workforce, aging population and a “sandwich generation” of Vermonters who are caring for children and parents at the same time.

“Simply put, our families, our communities, our employers and economy lose when women and caregivers leave the workforce. We simply can't afford it here in Vermont,” she said.

In a pre-recorded video, Vermont Senate President Becca Balint, characterized paid leave as an equity issue.

“It’s about fairness. It’s about helping women. It’s about helping people of color. It’s about helping single parents across the state, and I really hope that in the next year or so we are going to see paid family and medical leave get across the finish line, and I can’t wait for that day,” she said.

But while Vermont Democrats and Progressives have championed universal paid leave, others have raised concerns.

Scott administration representative Jason Maulucci, said in an email that the governor supports the voluntary paid family leave program he had previously proposed in 2019.

“He does not, however, support the state imposing a new mandatory payroll tax on already over-taxed Vermonters,” Maulucci wrote.

He added that the governor is looking forward to seeing how a federal paid family leave program might be paid for.

Kevin Eschelbach, president of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce, echoed Scott’s tax concerns.

“(We’re) not necessarily opposed to it, per se, but we're concerned with what the price tag would be to local businesses that are just finally coming out of COVID, and a lot of them are still struggling.”

He added, however, that a federally implemented program would likely be better received because it would level the playing field and not put Vermont businesses at a disadvantage “with yet another tax that out-of-state firms wouldn't necessarily be required to pay.”

Lyle Jepson, executive director of Chamber & Economic Development of the Rutland Region (CEDRR), said it comes down to affordability for businesses and workers.

He cited paid leave, along with higher wages, health care benefits and child care, as pieces of a puzzle that need to be assembled.

“I wouldn't say it's competing interests, because it's all one and the same, but we need to figure out the formula that makes it affordable,” he said.

He agreed with Eschelbach that a federal program would be easier to shoulder.

“I think businesses just need to know how to plan, and they don't. They don't appreciate surprises. And if they can plan, they can probably make things work,” he said.

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