By Bill Moore
As you may know, the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce is a voluntary membership organization. Among the things that we are engaged in is advocacy on behalf of the business community at the Statehouse. As we hit “crossover day,” when bills are moved between the House and Senate, there are three that the Chamber is closely following.
The first is S.37, An Act Relating to Medical Monitoring/Toxic Substances, which has passed the Senate. This bill includes a provision for strict liability for those using toxic or hazardous substances which are very broadly defined in the bill.
This essentially means that the minute that a “large facility” uses anything that is included on federal or state identified lists, they accept absolute liability for any harm done or potentially done, regardless if the use is in a permitted activity, and regardless if they are following the exact directions for using the product. A “large facility” can be a business with as few as 10 employees.
The liability is in play for intentional or unintentional discharges. This could have a chilling effect on businesses. How? A simple example can explain our concerns. Among the chemicals on the lists are all of the ingredients in window cleaner except water.
The bill mandates that the user be responsible for medical monitoring of individuals exposed to any “toxic substance” that has “the capacity to produce personal injury or illness.” No harm needs to have occurred, but if there is a potential for any injury to occur, then the business is responsible. We are told that it will be virtually impossible for companies to get insurance under the conditions of the bill.
By the way, the strict lability contained in the bill sunsets in July of 2024. If it goes away then, why is it needed now? There are already legal remedies for toxic substance and hazardous discharges on the books.
The second bill that bears mentioning is H.107 — Labor; Employment Practices; Paid Family Leave. The bill applies to employers with 10 or more employees who work an average of at least 30 hours per week. It creates a new tax on employees and employers.
The program will initially be funded by a tax of 0.93 percent of covered wages and that tax will be adjusted annually. It allows for employees to be eligible for 12 weeks of paid leave at the rate of 100 percent of his or her average weekly wage. The program — called “insurance” — is projected to be severely underfunded.
Many businesses are already providing paid leave for their employees. This program will cause problems for small businesses in particular who will have to juggle staffing positions as they manage the workflow for employees who have no incentive to return to work (100 percent wages paid for 12 weeks).
The third bill we are tracking is H.524 — Health; Health Insurance; Individual Mandate; Preexisting Conditions; Association Health Plans. Small businesses have a challenge providing affordable benefits to their employees. Among the costliest benefit is health care.
Under the federal Affordable Care Act, small group plans were eliminated, and small businesses were required to utilize the state health exchanges for their employee benefits. Last year, “Association Health Plans” were re-instituted.
Two plans were approved for Vermont, one offered through Chambers of Commerce and the other offered to members of Business Resource Services. The plans, approved by the Department of Financial Regulation, have been in place since Oct. 1, 2018. This bill will essentially eliminate these plans.
Businesses with fewer than 100 employees will be forced back into the exchange and share in the pool of 75,000. Small businesses will in effect be subsidizing this particular market in a misguided effort to provide stability to the market. Small businesses are not responsible for the instability in this market. The market was not stabilized when small businesses were fully in the exchange. Small businesses will be at a competitive disadvantage with larger businesses in offering benefits to attract and retain employees.
We are concerned that measures like these will have a severely negative impact on the ability of businesses to attract and retain employees. We are also concerned about business decisions on whether or not to move to — or stay in — Vermont as a result of these bills. We are concerned that measures such as this will have a negative effect on our ability to create a pro-growth, pro-jobs climate.
Bill Moore is president and CEO of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.