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Vt. bill targets penalizing sick workers

MONTPELIER — The state Senate gave preliminary approval Friday to a bill that would prohibit companies that offer sick days from penalizing workers who take them.

Senators said the measure was prompted by worker complaints about Sodexo, which handles food service under contracts with the University of Vermont, the Vermont State Colleges, and other colleges in the state.

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Senate majority leader Philip Baruth, who is an English professor at UVM, said Sodexo offers seven paid sick days per year, but gives employees a point for taking one. If the worker accumulates seven points in a year, which are also given for tardiness and other infractions, he or she can be terminated, Baruth said.

Sodexo did not immediately respond to an e-mail Friday seeking comment.

Senator Diane Snelling, Republican of Chittenden, questioned why the Legislature should zero in on one employer and why complaints about retaliation for taking promised sick leave could not be settled in a class-action lawsuit.

Baruth said that while he and other supporters knew of only one company in Vermont assessing negative points for taking sick days, the measure would apply equally to all.

Baruth said two Sodexo employees, one at UVM and the other at Johnson State College, told the Senate Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs Committee of the company policy. Baruth serves on the committee.

He told his fellow senators that paid sick time is often used as part of a package of enticements to get employees to sign on to a job. If an employee has accepted ‘‘an offer to earn sick time . . . then using sick time cannot result in a penalty or demerit against you,’’ he said.

The bill does not require employers to offer sick leave, only to honor commitments they made to workers without penalizing them.

Lawmakers are also considering separate legislation that would require employers to offer accrued sick time, up to seven days a year.

Senator Joe Benning, Republican of Caledonia, asked whether an employer could penalize a worker for calling in sick and then spending the day on the ski slopes. Baruth said a provision in the bill would allow employers to penalize workers in such cases.

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